Why We’re Trapped In A Cosmic Delusion And How To Get Out of It


“Narada, you’re such a dedicated devotee of mine. Is there a boon I can grant you?” asked Lord Vishnu.

Narada, or Narada Muni, as known by many, is a god-sage famous in Hindu traditions and mythology. He appears in a number of holy texts and scriptures. Narada had achieved such a deep awareness of the divine through Lord Vishnu, that the Lord himself came to him and asked if there’s a wish that could be granted.

“Yes, Lord, there’s one question I need the answer to,” replied Narad. He went on, “How is it possible for anyone to get caught up by Maya (delusion)? And why is it that in your presence, one can never be caught in Maya again?”

Without a direct answer to the question, the Lord said “Let’s go for a walk Narada.”

They walked through a deserted area full of hot sand for a couple of hours. Soon, they were thirsty and saw wisps of smoke rise into the air, far on the horizon.

Thinking the smoke to be coming from the village, the Lord sweetly asked Narada, “Please, could you go get us some water from the village?” So Narada went and knocked at the door of the first house he sees.

A beautiful, young maiden answered the door and received Narada into her house. Narada felt an ancient connection with the young lady — one that dates even before his current lifetime (or incarnation).

Before you know it, the parents of the young lady also came out, and all of them are engaged in good conversation. Lo and behold! The young girl and Narada get married.

Married life then goes on as usual — they have a child after a year, Narada establishes a business. After a year they have another child. And after 12 years, they have another child. It’s now almost **been 15 years **since Narada first came to the house.

At this point, when the youngest child is just a few months old, a flood comes down from the hills above and engulfs the entire village. Seeing this, Narada keeps his newborn child on his shoulders, his other two children holding his either hand and the wife by his side.

Unfortunately, the flow of the water was monstrous — so powerful that Narada loses his balance as his newborn baby slips off from his shoulders. In his effort to grab his baby, he lets go of his two children’s hands.

To his disappointment, he could neither save his baby nor his other two children. The wife, in her despondency of losing her children, lets the flow take her as well. And finally, Narada, thinks, “Of what avail is to live,” is washed away in the surge as well.

Sometime later, he wakes up thinking he’s lying on the banks of the river. To his surprise, it was just a pile of sand. “Narada?” he hears a familiar voice.

He hears it again, “Narada, where did you go? I’d told you to get water** 30 minutes ago**. Where have you been since then?”

He realizes that it’s the voice of his Lord Vishnu. And in that instant, he understood how one gets caught up by Maya and how it all vanishes in the presence of the Lord.

It took no time for Narada to fall into delusion. He forgot all his divine perceptions and experience while enjoying his new life.

Such is the act of delusion, ignorance, Maya or Satan, whatever you want to call it. The purpose of human life, which everyone realizes sooner or later, is to get out of Maya and strive for Truth.

Until we make that our goal, we keep roaming in this web of illusion for incarnations, going through the same ups and downs of life.

What Is Maya?

Vedanta declares that our real nature is divine: pure, perfect, eternally free. In other words, we do not have to become Brahman, we are Brahman. We don’t have to attain enlightenment, we are enlightened. Our true Self (aka the Atman) is one with Brahman.

But if our real nature is divine, why then are we so appallingly unaware of it? Why do 99% of people on this planet know of no other reality than that they perceive from their five senses?

It’s because of Maya (ignorance or delusion). Think of Maya as the veil between our real nature and the world around us. Even though the scriptures of all religions tell us that we’re made in the image of God, it’s Maya that stops us from seeing this. Bit by bit, as we grow spiritually, we pierce this veil(s) and tear it completely once we attain enlightenment.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” — Shakespeare

The world that we see around us can be understood as a movie show or a drama— a Cosmic one indeed. We are all actors in this show, playing our part. But the screen is unmoving. It never ceases to exist no matter what happens with the characters. Similarly, it is the unchanging Brahman — the substratum of existence — in the background of this changing world that gives the world its reality.

Maya is not at all easy to transcend. It’s like a warped mirror conditioned by time, space, and causality (or karma — the law of cause and effect). The more we identify with this warped reality, the more we forget about our divine nature.

In the legend of Narada and Vishnu above, Narada forgot his divine nature and became indulged in the world. He forgot that he was the unchanging soul but instead identified himself as a person with a beautiful wife, business, and three kids. He thus feared death, the loss of his family, and so on.

Maya manifests itself as anything that prevents us from realizing our true nature — desires, anger, hatred, lust, greed, ambition, and so on. All these melt away when we meditate on our perennial nature.

Further, when we engage in unselfish action and consistently act and think in ways that manifest our true nature — through truthfulness, purity, contentment, self-restraint, and forbearance, we purify ourselves. This mental purification drives away the clouds of Maya and allows our divine nature to shine forth.

Shankara, the great philosopher-sage of seventh-century India, gave the analogy of the rope and the snake. Walking down a dark road, a man sees a snake; his heart pounds and his pulse quickens. On closer inspection, the “snake” turns out to be a piece of coiled rope. Once the delusion breaks, the snake vanishes forever.

We too walk on the dark road of Maya and see ourselves as mortal creatures limited by time, space, karma, and desires. On “closer inspection” our mortal nature, as well as the whole world around us, turns out to be Brahman. Once the delusion breaks, the material world vanishes forever.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was fascinated with the concept of Maya and wrote about it in his journals. In one of his journals, he quotes from the Vedas, “the world is born of Maya.” He also wrote a short poem called Maya (or Maia):

Illusion works impenetrable, Weaving webs innumerable, Her gay pictures never fail, Crowds each on other, veil on veil, Charmer who will be believed By Man who thirsts to be deceived

Is the world really an illusion?

Yes, in fact, it is. but not because it does not exist, but because it is not what it appears to be all the time. What we think of as “our world” is simply a play of perceptions caused by our five senses — nothing more.

Every scripture in the world, especially those of Hinduism, says that we should not be misled by this sensory experience. When we go to sleep and shut off our senses in deep states of subconsciousness, the world ceases to exist. We’re no longer aware of our bodies. But we do have awareness. Sometimes we enter into the dream world and start thinking that all of that is real.

Alas, nothing is real at all. Not this world, and not the dream world. It’s all a play on the canvas of consciousness. From a dreamer’s perspective, a dream is real when he is in the state of dreaming. At least that is what we feel when a dream is actually enacting itself out in our consciousness.

But what happens when you wake up and the dream comes to an end? Was that dream real or just a projection of your mind? If it exists where is it now? Was it an illusion caused by a zillion neurons in your brain or a product of your astral travel?

Such will also be your experience when you wake up from this dreamy material world.

Why Do We Get Caught up in Maya?

The universe came into existence through the consciousness of God. Primordially, God is the impersonal, genderless Spirit that is beyond space-time. Yet, he created this whole universe by assuming three aspects:

  • Father: God beyond creation (SAT in Hinduism); Cosmic Consciousness

  • Son: God in creation (TAT in Hinduism); Christ Consciousness

  • Holy Ghost: God as vibration, manifesting creation and nature (AUM in Hinduism)

Even though most of us don’t realize or experience this, His consciousness pervades the universe. The question is, why do we caught up in Maya in the first place?

A simple analysis of our perceptual experience establishes beyond doubt that the world is not what it appears to be and what we perceive through our senses is just a superficial reality.

For example, everything in the universe is in constant motion, but we think we live in a stable world because we do not perceive the motion unless we pay particular attention to the planets and the stars and the movement of time.

The sky has no color. But to our eyes, it appears as blue, because of the reflection of the light by the molecules in the air. This is an illusion, which we see every day but do not acknowledge mentally unless we begin to think about it consciously.

Think again about the story of Narada. It was clearly just a dream created by Lord Vishnu to show him the power of Maya. If Narada would’ve realized that it was a dream, then the problem was solved.

But desires sprung up in his heart and those desires created attachment. Attachment to the girl, his business, children, family, and so on. It’s all about the ego that makes you feel like you’re a separate reality from everyone else.

The ego itself is only the soul identified with the body, as Yogananda explained it. The individual soul is subject to illusion only so long as it is caught up in material things.

Your soul knows the truth. But through the constant attachment of the ego towards the material world, you forget that reality. The ego and the bonds formed by our desires form a veil of ignorance around the soul and keep the soul in bondage.

Satan Is Also a Personification of Maya

Satan is not a red-colored man with two horns and a trident waiting to deep-fry you for bad deeds in hell. It’s just the personified form of the outflowing force of AUM which consciously seeks to perpetuate itself separate from God.

Think of it like this. We’ve already established the fact that the world is a Cosmic drama. But for that drama to go on, there needs to be a hero and a villain. And so in all our lives, there are two forces acting — one that takes us towards God and higher ideals; and the other that takes us away from God towards lower ideals.

It’s said that when God first created the world, everyone just meditated all day and received enlightenment in some time. Thus, the creation didn’t go on, and the drama ended too soon.

To ensure that the show does go on, God created Maya-delusion or the Satanic force. With the creation of that force, God has given us the free will to choose if we want Him or not. That choice alone is the only choice we have to make.

Note: At any rate, this similarity between Satan and Maya is yet another way to bring the teachings of the East and the West together.

How Do We Free Ourselves From Maya?

“Long concentration on the liberating spiritual eye has enabled the yogi to destroy all delusions concerning matter and its gravitational weight; thenceforth he sees the universe as an essentially undifferentiated mass of light.” — Yogananda

We learned how getting attached to the material world that we experience with the five senses gets us trapped in Maya. This veil of delusion can only be removed through the practice of yoga. Yoga is not only about the poses but the comprehensive path of meditation, devotion, and discrimination, all in an effort to achieve union with God.

Bit by bit, as our awareness rises, we learn to see the illusion. We realize that this is not our true home and we start walking towards our Eternal Kingdom. Maya cannot be overcome without a fundamental shift in our awareness and inner conditioning.

When our minds and senses are active, we remain under the influence of Maya. When we perceive things in a state of duality, we remain in the domain of Maya. Maya disappears only when our minds and senses are fully stabilized and we are able to experience things without the division of the seer and the seen.

And how to stabilize our minds and shut off our senses — through meditation and other yogic practices. Yes, I said it again, because there really is no other way to get out of it.

Before you think I’m promoting a sectarian view, many religious practices follow the teachings of yoga knowingly or unknowingly. In your religious/spiritual efforts to (no matter they belong to which teaching), you may already be putting the principles of yoga into practice.

Yoga in that sense is the universal science of Self-realisation. It is only through this science that we can pierce the false veil of Maya and realize the Truth within.

Final Thought

There’s no step-by-step process that you can follow and be free of the clutches of Maya. It’s what the whole spiritual path is all about. It can take a whole life; even lifetimes. But it’s possible — the saints, sages, and people of high spiritual achievement have shown us that.

They’ve set an example for all of us by achieving complete Oneness with the Infinite. That is why they’re not bound by Maya or Karma anymore. That is the state we’re after — the only way to get out of this illusion.

Maya only keeps one promise — that it never keeps its promises. This world is full of suffering and pain. Let’s all work to rise above the duality to realize the Oneness within.

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Written on April 3, 2021