Maya: The Paradoxical Potency of Bhagavan
By Satyanarayana Dasa, excerpt from the commentary on Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 33.1, originally published at the Jiva Institute.
Srila Jiva Gosvami has explained that Bhagavan is not contented that Maya has to delude the jivas; therefore Maya feels ashamed to face the Lord. One may ask, “If the Lord is all-powerful, why does He not intervene?” From scripture it is understood that Bhagavan empowers Maya as the agent of the material creation, and she has been performing this service faithfully without a beginning point in time. Because she is a devotee of Bhagavan, He respectfully does not interfere with her service.
But this reply may lead to a further doubt: Besides being all-powerful, the Supreme Lord is said to be unlimitedly merciful, always disposed to everyone’s welfare. Why then does He fail to intercede in Maya’s apparent harassment of the jivas? The deeper implications of this question involve the existential issues of freedom and choice, and hence of the inevitability of conditional life as the play of finite existence. Suffice to say here that for the Absolute to be truly complete, finitude must be accommodated no less than infinity, relativity no less than absoluteness, samsara no less than moksa. Yet, Jiva Gosvami points out that even though Bhagavan does not prevent Maya from fulfilling her role within the divine plan, He compassionately instructs the jivas how to get free from her clutches by withdrawing attention from phenomenal appearance and returning it in devotional surrender to Him. Maya no longer has the power to influence any jiva who has reposed consciousness fully in Bhagavan.
Still a puzzle remains: Why does Bhagavan allow Maya to create obstacles even for a jiva in whom the desire to surrender to Him has been born? Why does He allow her to repeatedly present various allurements that prevent the jiva from discriminating between proper and improper action and in this way baffle his attempts to surrender?
Srila Jiva Gosvami answers this question by citing the verse beginning satam prasangan mama virya-samvido, which was spoken by Sri Kapila in SB 3.25.25. This verse explains that devotees of Bhagavan associate favorably with one another and always relish talking about the Lord’s pastimes, which are a tonic for the hearts and ears of the sick and weak jivas. This tonic immunizes them against the disease of material illusion and gradually brings them back to a healthy condition of life, namely establishment in their constitutional identity of service to Bhagavan.
Bhagavan’s only occupation in the spiritual world is relishing pure loving exchanges with His unconditional devotees, and this enjoyment would be subject to disruption by the intrusion of unhealthy jivas—i.e., living beings still caught in egoic self-reference and pursuit of self-serving desire, and consequently in whom the pervasion of transegoic love for Bhagavan has not yet occurred. Maya therefore employs stringent means to ensure that no unfit beings are allotted even the possibility of intrusion upon the Lord. Because this is her assigned service, He does not interfere. On the other hand, because of the obstacles she presents, the jiva becomes reflective, attentive, and insightful, and this supports the fervent turning of attention toward Bhagavan. In this way one quickly attains the Lord’s feet. Obstacles make one strong, although they seem unpalatable when faced. Obstacles develop one’s character and sharpen intelligence.
Bhagavan has not, however, employed Maya just to inflict miseries on the jivas. She does that, but as mentioned earlier, her real purpose is to chasten the jivas, to encourage them to turn to Bhagavan. The punishment she metes out serves three purposes: to administer reactions to the living beings for their unwholesome deeds, to deter them from further transgressions, and to impel them to seek a solution to this world of suffering. Since this punishment ultimately benefits the jivas by uniting them with God, He generally does not choose to come between the jiva and Maya. The governor of a state will usually not interfere when the court system sends a criminal to prison. On the contrary, he may commend the policemen who captured the wrong-doer. People do not think the governor is cruel to employ such able policemen, and in the end, if the criminal is truly rehabilitated and then freed on parole, the former lawbreaker himself may thank the governor.
So, misery is in the very nature of material existence, and its inevitability is meant to induce the jivas to seek out their source, Bhagavan, and direct attention skillfully in His loving service. Only in this way can they gain liberation from Maya’s clutches. In Srimad Bhagavatam, Sri Sukadeva Gosvami confirms that this is the purpose of the creation:
buddhindriya-manah-pranan jananam asrjat prabhuh
matrartham ca bhavartham ca atmane’kalpanaya ca
“The Lord created the intellect, the senses, the mind and the vital force of the living beings for the purpose of apprehending sense objects (matra), for taking birth (bhava), for providing a range of experience for the self (atmane), and [ultimately] for transcending the act of filtering experience through the screen of prior assumptions (akalpanaya, i.e., for liberation).” (SB 10.87.2)
One may still object that even if the Supreme Lord is not intentionally cruel, He is yet indifferent to the plight of the jivas. This is another mistaken notion. Far from being indifferent to the jivas’ suffering, Bhagavan provided Vedic knowledge at the very beginning of the creation cycle. Moreover, He frequently appears in this world to enlighten the fallen populace on the pretext of educating His intimate associates, such as Arjuna and Uddhava. Sometimes He descends as Vedavyasa or as another enlightened instructor to make available the message of bhakti and uplift the suffering jivas. All this He does out of His causeless mercy, because, as we have learned from the pramana portion of Sri Tattva Sandarbha, the jivas can never directly know anything beyond the empiric range of experience merely by their own self-referencing endeavors. He alone is instrumental in the direct descent of His own intrinsic potency into the atma that is devotionally turned toward Him, making possible His own self-revelation as Bhagavan and the pervasion of unprecedented love for Him. In His appearance as Sri Caitanya He delivers krsna-prema, which is not available even to the residents of Vaikuntha.
The miseries of the material world are meant to prompt the jivas to direct their consciousness toward their supreme source, and therefore suffering is recognized as bearing intrinsic value by the far-sighted. It is like a wake-up call for the sleeping self. In this sense, misery can be seen as an aspect of Bhagavan’s inconceivable mercy. Out of His causeless mercy, the Supreme Lord offers the entrapped jivas access to spiritual knowledge through the Vedas. As Kaliyuga began and the jivas all but lost their ability to comprehend spiritual knowledge, He further helped them by explaining the same message in the Itihasas and Puranas. Finally, He revealed the essence of all knowledge in the form of Srimad Bhagavatam. So it can hardly be said that Bhagavan is indifferent to the plight of the jivas.
Once a jiva takes advantage of Bhagavan’s arrangement for spiritual education and comes to the point of transcendental realization, he need not fear any punishment for his previous misdeeds, no matter how dreadful they were. As Sri Krsna says in Bhagavad Gita:
yathaidhamsi samiddho’gnir bhasma-sat kurute’rjuna
jnanagnih sarva-karmani bhasma-sat kurute tatha
As a blazing fire turns firewood to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge burn to ashes all reactions to material activities. (Gita 4.37)
Thus, Bhagavan confirms that the jivas’ punishment is meant not for inflicting suffering on them, but for awakening them to the knowledge that will lead them to freedom from all suffering and eternal life in the spiritual world.
Yet another doubt may be raised: If the punishment inflicted on the jivas is for their ultimate good, why are they also allowed to enjoy in this world? If they were simply thrown into an ocean of ceaseless misery, they would have no choice but to quickly take complete shelter of God.
This may be answered as follows: First, ceaseless misery is not possible. Material misery and material pleasure are correlative conditions. If one suffers continuously, any decrease in pain will be experienced as pleasure. Moreover, ceaseless misery is not conducive to development of transcendental awareness, because the mind then becomes too disturbed to contemplate scriptural truths. Second, ceaseless misery is not necessary because any jiva with even a little rudimentary transcendental insight will realize that there is no real happiness in this material world. Without such knowledge, misery alone is insufficient to awaken a person to reality. Without knowledge one simply becomes acclimatized to misery. Such knowledge is available from Sastra. In the Yoga-sutra (YS 2.15), Patanjali says that every phenomenal experience is miserable to a wise person.
In Gita 9.33, Sri Krsna characterizes this world as temporary and devoid of real happiness: anityam asukham lokam. The so-called happiness one experiences here is nothing but a temporary cessation or diminution of misery. It is like the pleasure felt by a man who is repeatedly dunked in water and then brought to the surface just before drowning. Upon taking in the life-giving air, he feels great relief and joy, but such happiness is really only the temporary absence of continual misery. Sri Krsna, therefore, advises us not to strive for the so-called happiness of this material world: sama-duhkha-sukham dhiram so’mrtatvaya kalpate. “A wise person who remains equipoised in both misery and happiness, considering them to be of the same nature, is eligible for liberation” (Gita 2.15). Only such a person can taste real happiness; others experience only the illusion of happiness.
In conclusion, therefore, Bhagavan has designed a two-part program for both chastening and rehabilitating the jivas: On the one hand, Maya punishes them, and on the other, the Lord instructs them through various avataras, the Vedic scriptures and His pure devotees. Thus, Maya’s and Bhagavan’s actions perfectly complement each other.
Although Maya is Bhagavan’s material energy, she also exists in her personal form. All the energies of Bhagavan have their personal forms with corresponding identity, will, affect and sphere of action. (Srila Jiva Gosvami will discuss this point in greater detail in Sri Bhagavat Sandarbha, Anuccheda 99.) That Maya has a personal form is evident from a dialogue between Lord Indra and Mayadevi narrated in the Third Chapter of the Kena Upanisad:
Once there was a war between the devas and the asuras. After a long struggle, the devas prevailed by the Supreme Lord’s mercy, but they mistakenly ascribed their victory to their own valor and became proud. To humble them, the Lord appeared before them in the guise of a yaksa. Unable to identify the yaksa, they appointed Agni, the fire god, to find out who He was. When Agni asked the yaksa to identify Himself, He placed a straw in front of Agni and said, “Burn it.” With all his power Agni could not burn the straw. Then Vayu, the air god, was sent to identify the yaksa, but he could not blow the straw away. Next, Lord Indra approached the yaksa, but the mysterious personality disappeared. Finally, Mayadevi appeared to Indra in the form of Uma and told him that the yaksa was in fact Bhagavan.
Many similar accounts in the Vedas and Puranas demonstrate that maya and other energies of Bhagavan have their own personal forms. Thus, the description of how Vyasa saw Maya standing behind the Lord out of embarrassment is not figurative. Maya experienced shame before Bhagavan due to the nature of her actions.
Yet, another question might be asked: “If Maya, the predominating deity of the material energy, can manage all her affairs, what need is there for Paramatma to regulate this world? Sri Krsna answers this in Bhagavad Gita:
sarva-yonisu kaunteya murtayah sambhavanti yah
tasam brahma mahad yonir aham bija-pradah pita
O son of Kunti, whatever forms appear in the various species of life, primordial nature (mahad brahma) is their womb and I am the seed giving father. (Gita 14.4)
Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without the help of a potent man, Maya cannot manage the material world without the help of Paramatma. Maya has her innate potencies for serving the Supreme Lord, but still she needs His help in carrying out her duties. For this reason Vyasa saw that she was dependent on Bhagavan, a fact Krsna confirms in Gita 9.10 when He says that this material nature, which is one of His energies, is ultimately working under His direction.