That which has no beginning but which ends,
which is present equally in what is seen and not seen,
which is neither real, nor unreal, nor real-unreal,
and which itself appears most pure, most flawless –
that energy is called maya, illusion.
It cannot be described in any other way.
Illusion is ignorance,
it is of no significance and is false.
But to the deluded ones,
illusion is real in the three states of time:
past, present and future.
Hence its true nature cannot be conveyed
just by saying, “It is this….”
It would have been very simple to understand the reality of life if there had been only two categories within existence – the real and the unreal. Then we could easily have said that something exists or does not exist. There would have been no difficulty had there been a clear-cut division in life, in existence. But there is one more category of existence which we can neither say that it exists nor does not exist. That creates the whole complexity.
It is like when a rope is lying on the road, which to you looks like a snake because of the darkness. Does this snake exist or not? It would have been simple to say that yes it exists, or no it does not exist. Then there would be no complexity. But the snake seen in the rope is in one way nonexistent – because upon investigation you find that it is actually a rope and not a snake – but in another sense the snake is, because it has appeared to you. And it has not only appeared, it has caused you to run away. You could have fallen down in your hurry and even hurt yourself. It could have increased your heartbeat, made you perspire, and if you never returned to investigate it you would have always lived with the idea that it was a snake.
Can one run away from something which doesn’t exist? Perspire because of something which doesn’t exist? Can the heart tremble because of something which doesn’t exist? Can all this happen because of a non-existent phenomenon? If all this can happen, then we have to accept its existence in some sense, because it is impossible to deny outright a non-existent phenomenon which can cause these happenings.
You have a horrible dream during the night; your sleep is disturbed and yet you know it was only a dream – but your fast heartbeat is not reduced and your limbs continue to tremble. Accepted, it was just a dream, and now you also know that it was just a dream, but still the real heart trembles and the bewilderment continues. It will take some time for sleep to come again.
The sages say that it is not right to call something nonexistent which influences the actual reality. And it is interesting that this third category is so dominating that our whole life is under its influence; therefore it cannot be denied. This third category is so significant that our whole life is influenced by it and moves around it.
That is why India has invented a new word, maya, illusion. Maya is neither the real nor the unreal, it is in between. In a way it is and in another way it is not. It has been called maya because it only appears to be.