What is maya?
Below is a story to illustrate just that:
Once Narada the celestial sage and ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu asked him,
“Lord, what is maya?”
Lord Vishnu said, “I’ll explain to you what maya is, but first fetch me some water as I am really thirsty.”
At a distance there was a village and Narada left at once. As he collected water from the river, he saw a beautiful woman. Narada felt attracted to her and asked the bashful girl to marry him.
After receiving her father’s blessing the two got married. Over time they had children and Narada inherited his father-in-laws property, land, cattle etc. Narada seemed very happy in his family life and they happily continued to live their life.
One day there was a terrible rainstorm. It wouldn’t stop pouring and the river overflowed its banks flooding the village. Homes and people were swept away. In an effort to escape, Narada held on to his wife with one hand and his older son with another. He placed his younger child over his shoulders. But the current proved to be too strong and swept away one of his children. In an attempt to save one child, he lost his grasp over his wife and second child. As they all got carried away by the flood, out of desperation he wailed and lamented, “Lord help me!”
All of a sudden he found himself scooped up and a gentle voice behind him say,
” Child, Where is my water? You’ve been gone for half an hour.”
Narada was confused. Where was his village? His wife? His children? Half an hour? It had been 12 years.
“You have always had theoretical knowledge of maya, but never really experienced it” said Lord Vishnu. Despite that knowledge you got pulled into this material world. Such is the power of maya. The moment you experienced it you got caught up in it. It became your reality.”
Living in this world of maya is akin to being in a dream. Sometimes we wake up from a scary dream that felt very real but the moment we awake from it, we are extremely relieved as we realize it was only a dream.
Maya or illusion is similar to that. The world we live in is maya but feels very real to us because of the play of the gunas (qualities) of satva, rajas and tamas. When the mind gets dragged by the sense organs into the material world, there is an imbalance created in the three gunas. As the mind runs outwards, it wanders farther and farther away from its divine nature and gets caught up in the play of life.
One wakes up from this maya when they turn their mind inwards through control of the mind (chittasamyam) and practice of yoga. As the mind becomes free from agitation, the three gunas enter into a state of perfect balance and the being comes to realize their divinity. Everything at once becomes clear. Reality reveals itself and as it does, the world of maya that we believe to be our reality blurs away into the background and one sees it for what it truly is-unreal; that we are all nothing but hamsters in a wheel, believing that we are actually getting somewhere but really never getting anywhere.
If the mind is agitated because of the constant assault by emotions, this world of maya will continue to feel real. One continues to experience momentary pleasure, interrupted by long phases of sorrow and suffering.
If the mind is free from agitation, the being will experience divine bliss and be free from worldly sorrows and suffering even while living in it.
Mind is the root cause of suffering for one who is controlled by it. But mind is also the liberator for one who can control it.