Saturday, January 16, 2010

Indian Epic Storybooks: Maya

Maya is the Sanskrit word for "illusion." The principle that what we may perceive as a reality could be just an illusion is both an important plot device in the epics, but also a fundamental assumption about Hindu philosophy and religion. In the Western tradition, we usually assume that reality is real and not an illusion - but if you have seen the movies The Matrix or Inception, you can see how the world of games or or dreams could actually replace reality with such a complete subtlety that we cannot tell the difference.

Like Karma and Dharma, Maya is a universal principle: she is at work everywhere at all times, so with any story you can consider how everything participates in the dilemma of reality and illusion. To get some ideas about how that might work, you can take a look at these past Storybooks about Maya.

For research, check out the Maya article in Wikipedia, and you might also be interested in looking at Lila also, the Hindu notion of cosmic play. One of the most important stories about Maya is the story of Narada which you can read here: Narada and the Illusion of Maya. Another fascinating story is that of the "Maya Sita," the Phantom Sita, which you can read about here: Was Human Cloning Known to Vedic Sages? (the Maya Sita legend is up near the top of the article).

As you do research into Maya, don't get confused by similarity between the feminine noun, Māyā, "illusion," and the masculine name Māya, also known as Mayasura, who is the divine architect (more about Mayasura here). Maya is also the name of the mother of the Buddha, so watch out for that possible source of confusion also.

For a wonderful romp through the major myths involving Maya, I can highly recommend Wendy Doniger's book Dreams, Illusions and Other Realities (we have a copy of this book in Bizzell Library; here is the call number: BF 1078 .O45 1984). Wendy Doniger has written many books about Hindu mythology, and this one is my favorite.

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