Maya is a big deal for me. I discovered maya years ago when I was taking a comparative religion class. Maya is a Hindu concept that loosely translates as “illusion.” However, as is true with many religious concepts, there is far more to maya than mere illusion. I will now attempt to make the case for why maya is a concept I use to make sense of the world we live in.
Ellwood & McGraw (2002) define maya thusly, “Brahman manifest in the world of forms; illusion when these forms are seen as other than Brahman” (p. 500). In this definition, the illusion mentioned is maya. To understand this definition you have to know that “Brahman (always with a capital b)” is tantamount to existence and reality. We humans have imperfect perceptions of reality and thereby we misunderstand our existence. The patterns and belief and experiences we possess trap us in this state of illusion. Consequently, we do not see the world as it is.
John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live provides an adequate representation of the concept of maya. In the film, a drifter played by (Rowdy) Roddy Piper discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see aliens when he wears them. The sunglasses allow him to pierce the veil of illusion that exists around him. While wearing the glasses, he also discovers the consumerist messaging hidden within advertising.
I reiterate that this is an adequate representation. The issues that the movie explores: class, social control, consumerism, colonialism, and others are all fodder for consideration of maya, but do not completely explain its scope. The forms that Ellwood & McGraw reference in their definition encompass everything in our lives and experience: childhood, education, socialization, that is, everything that we do and say in order to live our lives as comfortably as possible.
There are aspects of maya that seem easily discernable; propaganda and marketing being prime examples. However, propaganda and marketing are only discernable if we realize what they are. If we view them as types of information, such as news and entertainment, what motivation exists for us to seek out their meaning?
The context of maya that I find most relevant is in its role as a deceiver or a limiter of knowledge. A Christian theologian might link maya to the works of Satan. I think this is reasonable but misses the point; maya as a concept is based more on self-deception than the evil intent of outside beings. This is also the weakness of the They Live analogy.
However, I cannot argue that outside intent precludes one from labeling something as an aspect of maya. Consider the field of agnotology, which is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. This ignorance can be produced as a result of what we are told by the media or in our education. The technical term for this type of ignorance is an information asymmetry. One of the biggest reasons that information asymmetries exist is that they can be exploited for profit. Advertising is a prime example of this; if two products are indistinguishable then branding can help push a consumer to buy one over the other.
Anyway, this is meant to be an introduction to the concept. It is important because I intend to reference maya often going forward. I don’t want to just spring it onto people whilst I write on other topics, so, here it is. This explanation is woefully incomplete, but it is enough to allow you to know what I am talking about when I do mention it in the future.
Ellwood, R.S., & McGraw, B.A. (2002). Many people, many faiths: Women and men in the world religions, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.