Question: Can you explain what is maya, and the function of Mayadevi? Is she a devotee of Krishna or is she like the devil in Christian theology?
The Sanskrit word maya means that which is not. In other words, it is illusion. Maya is Sanskrit for “illusion” as well as “energy.” The ultimate source of all energies is the Absolute Truth, Lord Krishna, and maya refers to His external, material energy, under whose illusion we accept the body as the self, and this material world as all there is. The illusory energy conceals the fact that everything is emanating from the Absolute Truth, and makes the temporary manifestations of material energy look real and attractive. Attraction to maya keeps the soul bound to the wheel of birth and death, in the endless attempt to fulfill our desires for temporary things.
There is a wonderful story which illustrates the power of the illusory energy. Lord Indra is a very powerful demigod who is called the “king of the heavenly planets.” One time he committed some offence against his spiritual master and was cursed to take birth as a pig. So, Indra lived out his life as a pig and became very attached to his pig pen and his pig wife and his little piglets. He would lie in the mud all day and eat food scraps and slops and think he was in heaven. When the duration of the curse was over, a delegation of demigods including Lord Brahma came to get Indra and bring him back to the heavenly planets. But he was horrified, saying “I can’t leave my pig stye and my pig wife and my little piglets.” He refused to go, and so one of the demigods stabbed him in the back and out flew Indra in his dazzling heavenly form. As he flew up to the heavenly planets he looked back and was horrified to look down and see the pig pen and the life he had become attached to. The message of this story actually applies to all of us who are so attached to our temporary material life with all of its misery, seeing it as being “a many splendored thing.” This is the power of maya.
Becoming free from the negative influence of maya involves becoming captivated by another of Krishna’s energies, yogamaya, the spiritual energy which attracts the self again to the natural condition of voluntary and enthusiastic loving service to the Supreme. Maya is an insurmountable problem, and unless one surrenders to Krishna one has absolutely no chance of becoming free from maya’s clutches, and one can be considered to be eternally conditioned. But on surrendering to Krishna, loving Krishna, we become eternally liberated and we are restored to our natural condition:
The Lord is the seer, and the external energy, which is seen, works as both cause and effect in the cosmic manifestation. O greatly fortunate Vidura, this external energy is known as maya or illusion, and through her agency only is the entire material manifestation made possible.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 3:5:25]
Mayadevi, although having the undesirable task of keeping rebellious souls in illusion, is actually a great devotee of the Lord. She is Krishna’s faithful servant who keeps those who do not want to remember and serve Krishna in illusion. Mayadevi is Mother Nature, the illusory potency of God, and she is the consort of Lord Shiva. She is known by many other names: Durga means “fortress or prison.” The material world is a correction facility for delinquent souls, and Goddess Durga, Mayadevi, is the warden. And when the conditioned soul has reformed his mentality, the head of the Justice Department – Krishna – gives the word, and the prisoner is released and goes home.
Shiva and Parvati [Mayadevi]
Another name for Mayadevi is Kali. She is the enforcer of kala – eternal time. As long as I identify with my material body, and see this world as the all-in-all, then I am a prisoner of time, because everything material will have a beginning and an end. We are trapped on the wheel of birth and death by our attachment to the temporary manifestations of the material energy.
One time at Seattle in 1968 Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami was asked “What type of living entity is Mayadevi?” He replied:
She is Vaisnavi. She is great devotee of Krishna. But she has accepted a thankless task – to punish. The policeman is a sincere government servant, but he has accepted a task – nobody likes him. (Bhaktivedanta Swami laughs) If some policeman comes here, immediately you shall feel disturbed. But he is the sincere servant of government. That is the position of Maya. Her business is to punish these rascals who have come to enjoy here. You see? But she is a sincere servant of God. …
…Yes. It is a post, thankless post. Nobody thanks, everyone derides, you see. But she is a great devotee. She tolerates and punishes. That’s all. She only wants to see that “You become Krishna conscious, (then) I leave you.” That’s all. Police business is that “You become law-abiding citizen; then I have no connection with you.” “And so long you are not a law-abiding (citizen), I shall kick you as much as possible.” So, Maya’s business is like this. And we are complaining, “Why you are kicking? Why you are kicking?” “Yes, I shall kick you because you are not Krishna conscious. I shall make you Krishna conscious by kicking, kicking, kicking. That’s all. That is my business.”
Mayadevi taking Instruction from Lord Vishnu
As spirit souls, we have free will. It is our eternal nature to love and serve Krishna. But He is not a fanatic. He does not force us to love and serve Him. While the tendency to be the competitive enjoyer rather than the servant of Krishna is not a natural tendency of the jiva soul, the potential is there due to our free will. What we must remember is that the time we spend in the material world is just a moment compared to the eternity of our existence. And as Krishna’s tiny parts and parcels, we should not think that we are too great to ever be covered by illusion.
As individual spirit souls, we are part of the marginal potency of the Supreme Lord. Krishna has three main potencies or energies:
1. Chit-shakti – It is also called swarup-shakti. It is the internal potency. The internal potency has infinite opulences and the spiritual world – Goloka Vrindavan and the countless Vaikuntha planets – are made of this shakti. This is Krishna’s pleasure potency. Radharani is the embodiment of this potency.
2. Maya-shakti – Is the external potency. The material world comprising of innumerable universes is made up of this shakti. This is the illusory energy. Mayadevi is the embodiment of this potency. Mayadevi is an expansion of Radharani.
3. Jiva-shakti – It is also called the tatastha potency or the marginal potency. The individual or jiva souls comprise this potency. “Tatastha” means borderline or shoreline. Just as the shoreline is part of the ocean at high tide, and part of the land at low tide, so the jiva souls, being marginal, can be under the influence of the internal or external potencies. They are minute, not all powerful, but have the free will to be servants of Krishna or false enjoyers of the material world. They can align themselves with the spiritual or material worlds by being the voluntary servant of Radha-Krishna or the unknowing servant of Mayadevi.
Can we blame Mayadevi for our being in illusion? No, to be in maya – forgetfulness of our relationship with Krishna – is our choice. Lord Jesus Christ said that we cannot serve two masters – God and Mammon. Covered by enviousness, we have chosen to try and be the Supreme Enjoyer in our little kingdom. We should not have an attitude towards Mayadevi that some people have towards the imaginary figure known as the devil. We’ve all heard people blame the devil for their bad actions: “I’m a good person – the devil made me do it.” Maya cannot be used as an excuse so I don’t take responsibility for my own lust, anger and greed, my weakness and my bad choices.
If I get drunk and crash my car, I can blame the alcohol, or blame the police who arrested me, but I am the idiot who was driving drunk. Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna why we are impelled to sinful acts even when we know they are wrong and will cause us problems. He does not mention the devil:
Arjuna said: O descendant of Vrsni, by what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force? The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.
So, the degree to which we are under the spell of Mayadevi coincides with the degree to which our original selfless love for Krishna has been transformed into selfish lust. It is like a barometer of our spiritual health. And conversely, the more our hearts become purified by our devotional activities, the more we are freed from Mayadevi’s control. And the happier we become. We can tell we are making progress when material experiences we once thought we couldn’t do without, gradually pale into insignificance.
When Lord Krishna comes to the material world, Mayadevi comes with Him. Subhadra, Krishna’s sister who was born from Mother Yasoda, is actually Mayadevi. And she is worshiped along with Krishna and Balarama in the Jagannath deity forms. Her appearance as Krishna’s sister is told in the tenth canto of Srimad Bhagavatam and in its summary as the KRSNA Book.
The potency of the Lord, known as vishnu-maya, who is as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, will also appear with Lord Krishna. This potency, acting in different capacities, captivates all the worlds, both material and spiritual. At the request of her master, she will appear with her different potencies in order to execute the work of the Lord.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 10:1:25]
In the purport to this verse, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami states:
… In the Vedas it is said that the potencies of the Supreme Personality of Godhead are called by different names, such as Yogamaya and Mahamaya. Ultimately, however, the Lord’s potency is one, exactly as electric potency is one although it can act both to cool and to heat. The Lord’s potency acts in both the spiritual and material worlds. In the spiritual world the Lord’s potency works as Yogamaya, and in the material world the same potency works as Mahamaya, exactly as electricity works in both a heater and a cooler. In the material world, this potency, working as Mahamaya, acts upon the conditioned souls to deprive them more and more of devotional service. … When the conditioned soul becomes liberated, however, he thinks himself an eternal servant of Krishna. … When he comes to that position, the same potency, acting as Yogamaya, increasingly helps him become purified and devote his energy to the service of the Lord. …
[Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami: purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 10:1:25]
During Subhadra’s appearance as Krishna’s sister, she became the wife of Arjuna.
Just as Lord Shiva is a transformation of Lord Vishnu or Krishna, Goddess Durga – Mayadevi – is Radharani’s distorted transformation. She is in charge of those souls who want to enjoy a material body. For such people, she becomes the illusion of the material world. And in her form as Yogamaya, she is the expansion of Srimati Radharani whose function is to regulate everything in the spiritual world so that Krishna’s loving pastimes with His loving servants runs smoothly. Just as Mayadevi keeps souls in the illusion that they are the supreme enjoyer in the material sphere, Yogamaya casts a type of illusory spell over the residents of Krishnaloka. This is the illusion of love, whereby Krishna’s loving friends in the spiritual world are not aware that He is God. The feelings of awe and reverence that devotees of Lord Vishnu experience in the Vaikuntha planets are not present on Krishna’s abode.
For example, when Krishna plays with the cowherd boys, they play games, climb on His shoulders, wrestle and joke with Him. There is no awareness that He is the Supreme Lord. He is just their best friend who is so much fun to hang out with. The intimacy and relaxed nature of their dealings would not be possible if they were aware of His exalted power and majesty. When Mother Yasoda sits baby Krishna on her lap and feeds Him, or washes His body and dresses Him, she is not thinking she is serving the all-powerful Lord of all spiritual and material worlds. She is thinking “My sweet little child needs his mother to look after him.” The intimacy of parental affection for Krishna would not be possible for someone who was aware that Krishna is God. So, in the spiritual world, Yogamaya enables the residents of Goloka to enjoy intimate loving pastimes with Krishna which are not spoilt by feelings of awe and reverence.
Everything Material is Like a Dream
My dear King, now you are actually experiencing the misery of a person who has sons and daughters. O King, owner of the state of Surasena, one’s wife, his house, the opulence of his kingdom, and his various other opulences and objects of sense perception are all the same in that they are temporary. One’s kingdom, military power, treasury, servants, ministers, friends and relatives are all causes of fear, illusion, lamentation and distress. They are like a gandharva-nagara (a fairy castle), a non-existent palace that one imagines to exist in the forest. Because they are impermanent, they are no better than illusions, dreams and mental concoctions. These visible objects like wife, children and property are like dreams and mental concoctions. Actually, what we see has no permanent existence. It is sometimes seen and sometimes not. Only because of our past actions do we create such mental concoctions, and because of these concoctions, we perform further activities.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 6:15:23-24]
In the purport to these verses, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami states:
Everything material is a mental concoction because it is sometimes visible and sometimes not. At night when we dream of tigers and snakes, they are not actually present, but we are afraid because we are affected by what we envision in our dreams. Everything material is like a dream because it actually has no permanent existence.
Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura writes as follows in his commentary … At night one dreams of tigers and snakes, and while dreaming he actually sees them, but as soon as the dream is broken, they no longer exist. Similarly, the material world is a creation of our mental concoctions. We have come to this material world to enjoy material resources, and by mental concoction we discover many, many objects of enjoyment because our minds are absorbed in material things. This is why we receive various bodies. According to our mental concoctions we work in various ways, desiring various achievements, and by nature and the order of the Supreme Personality of Godhead (karmana-daiva-netrena) we get the advantages we desire. Thus, we become more and more involved with material concoctions. This is the reason for our suffering in the material world. By one kind of activity, we create another, and they are all products of our mental concoctions.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 6:15:23-24 Purport]
… The duty of the sane person, therefore, is to be undisturbed by worldly calamities, which are sure to happen in all circumstances. Suffering all sorts of unavoidable misfortunes, one should make progress in spiritual realization because that is the mission of human life. The spirit soul is transcendental to all material calamities; therefore, the so-called calamities are called false. A man may see a tiger swallowing him in a dream, and he may cry for this calamity. Actually, there is no tiger and there is no suffering; it is simply a case of dreams. In the same way, all calamities of life are said to be dreams. …
[Purport Srimad Bhagavatam 1:8:25]
Time is relative – it varies from the waking state to the sleeping state, from planet to planet and from species to species. A lifetime for an insect may be over in a few human hours. Our lifetime is a moment in the time scale of the demigods. Time is part of the illusory energy and has no absolute reality. Time in the material world is likened to a dream – it seems real but it has no endurance. Where are the family, friends, home and events of our last lifetime? They are gone forever.
In the spiritual world there is no past and no future. Everything exists in the eternal moment. In the story of Tulasi devi, there is an event where Sudama, one of the cowherd boys, gets cursed by Radharani to take birth in the material world. This pastime was arranged by Krishna, as He had a particular important service that He wanted Sudama to perform in the material world. But when Radha realized he was actually going, she was filled with remorse and tried to revoke her curse. Krishna reassured all present that Sudama would be back in half a moment:
Sudama bowed down to Me [Krishna] and, crying, began to leave. But Radha, who is quite merciful, began to melt. Weeping, she tried repeatedly to stop him from leaving. ‘Wait!’ She called. ‘Wait! Where are you going? You don’t have to go. Please come back.’ She became distressed, and Her attendants and the cowherd boys began to weep. I then explained to them, ‘In about half a moment Sudama will return, having fulfilled the conditions of the curse. Of course, half a moment here is equal to about one Manvantara (4,320,000 years) on Earth.’ I then called to Sudama, ‘O Sudama, when the curse expires, please come back here!’
[Excerpt from Story of Tulasi Devi]
The great acharyas have explained that our suffering in the material world over many lifetimes can be likened to a child putting his finger in a flame and going, “Ouch, that hurts – I won’t do that again!” Krishna reassures us in the Bhagavad-gita that once we are re-established in our loving relationship with Him and have returned to the spiritual world, we will never return to the material world. And Krishna states in Bhagavad-gita:
This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.
O son of Prtha, those who are not deluded, the great souls, are under the protection of the divine nature[yogamaya]. They are fully engaged in devotional service because they know Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, original and inexhaustible.
Translation of Jiv Jago by Bhaktivinoda Thakur
1) Lord Gauranga is calling, Wake up, sleeping souls! Wake up, sleeping souls! How long will you sleep in the lap of the witch called Maya?
2) You have forgotten the way of devotional service and are lost in the world of birth and death.
3) I have descended just to save you; other than Myself you have no friend in this world.
4) I have brought the medicine that will wipe out the disease of illusion from which you are suffering. Take this maha-mantra-Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
5) Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura says: I fall at the Lord’s feet, having taken this maha-mantra.