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Śrīmad Vallabhācārya on the basis of Upaniṣadas defines the māyā as

“Brahman’s power residing in Him, by which He can become everything and anything whatsoever” (T.D.N.)

“That power of Brahman which is cause of the world-order is Yoga-Māyā” (Śrī Subodhinī 10,2,5/3,6,35).

Just as a man’s capacity or power to act is inseparably inherent in him, māyā, the power or the capacity of Brahman, is contained in and identified with Him. It is through the capacity that Brahman, the supreme personality of Godhead, at His Divine Will starts the process of world-creation wherein māyā through its functioning sets the wheel of onward formulations and manifestations (āvirbhāva) in motion without any assistance from any other principle because there is no other than Brahman, the saccidānanda, in his nirguṇa and transcendental state.

As soon as there arises a wish in God to be many māyā, His power is triggered, as if from slumber, to restart and rejuvenate the process of creation. The first function it undertakes in this direction, in the beginning of creation, is to conceal Brahman’s all-pervasiveness- referred to as His tirodhānaśakti- introducing limitation in His otherwise essential pervasiveness. Though the manifestation of limitation in Brahman it becomes the instrument of projection of both souls and matter from His two aspects, namely Consciousness and Existence involving the distinction between the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ which was previously non existent. And then the whole universe is gradually manifested in its full bloom and diversity. This aspect of māyā or Brahman’s power involved in the process of cosmic-creation is nomenclatured as ‘Yogamāya’.

Vyāmohikā-Māyā or Āvaraṇaśakti

The aspect of māyā’s functioning which is responsible for the delusion of the individual souls about their true and essential natures is known as vyāmohikā-māyā; it is this aspect of māyā which creates in them the idea of duality, egoism, and separation of Brahman and all that is characteristic of saṃsāra. It is to be carefully noted that in Śrīmad Vallabhācārya’s philosophy, there is a difference between saṃsāra, the subjective understanding of the individual soul and the prapañca or the cosmic world order. Whereas prapañca is the real creation of Brahman out of Brahman’s own Self caused by māyā, the creative power, the saṃsāra is an unreal conceptual apprehension of the individual soul caused by the delusive aspect of Brahman’s māyā i.e. vyāmohikā-māyā. It is also this aspect of māyā that the Śrīmad Bhagavata refers when it describes: “The apprehension of things not in their own nature but differently from what they really are is an effect of this māyā like ābhāsa or tāmasa(darkness)”. It is this vyāmohikā-māyā which unfurls itself as nescience or the avidyā of jīva. Like avidyā even the vidyā in Vallabha Vedānta is considered as the power of Brahman and not of the individual soul and as such it is recognised as an aspect of vyāmohikā-māyā. All delusional, infatuation, ignorance and absence of the true cognition in man is an effect of the deluding and enticing operation of this aspect of māyā. Thus, this āvaraṇaśakti of Brahman ultimately leads to the deprivation of essential powers (aiśvarya) of the individual souls, leading to its involvement in an endless cycle of saṃsāra.

Māyā, A Single Principle?

A question is often raised: Are the various powers of māyā different or are they aspect of a single principle? Again, is māyā representative of the overall capacity of Brahman or is it only one of His diverse and infinite powers?

Vallabha Vedānta contemplates of a single māyā as the overall capacity (sāmarthya) of Brahman which on account of its different manifestations is named differently. Just as in a single banyan seed the powers of the innumerable banyan trees are contained in a latent form, the māyā of Brahman is also one; it is through its power that it transforms itself in different ways. The single māyā representing Brahman’s capacity displays the duality of the individual soul and the Lord, the knower and the known, and then itself becomes the creative Māyā and Avidyā. Thus, in Vallabhite conception of Māyā is a renunciation of the view that it is prudent to contemplate of a single power or capacity of Brahman and then relate all other powers as its various manifestations than to receive of an infinite variety of powers subsisting in the Ultimate Reality, the Brahman.

Māyā and Avidyā

Though Śrīmad Vallabhācārya differentiates between māyā and avidyā as two separate powers on the authority of Śrīmad Bhagavata where there is a mention of the twelve powers of God, yet this is only to emphasise that the aspect of Godhead’s unitary power motivating and sustaining the process of the world-creation is different from the one that is causative of the subjective ignorance and the misinterpretation of truth to the individual soul, the avidyā, and not to demolish the validity of the conception that they are two aspects of God’s power by which He can become almost all and everything and be the repository of contradictory attributes. Śrīmad Vallabhācārya himself clarifies this point and asserts that ‘the avidyā with its five knots residing in the jīva is a creation of māyā’. Śrīmad Bhagavata too repeatedly emphasises the irrefragable (indisputable) character of this theory when it contends that both vidyā and avidyā (knowledge and ignorance) are created by Lord’s Māyā or that Brahman’s divine (ādhidaivika), the spiritual (ādhyātmika) and the elemental (ādhibhautika) forms of the creation and the three gunas, viz. sattva, rājasa and tāmasa, employed in the creation of the universe, are an effect of the instrumental causality of māyā. Śrīmad Bālakṛṣṇa Bhaṭṭa very clearly asserts this point when he writes, “Vyāmohikā-māyā is only a form of the Māyā that is capable of of being anything and everything whatsoever; therefore, there is a mention of the vision of only one Māyā occurring to Śrīmad Veda Vyāsa in His samādhi.”

Nature of Māyā

Māyā being the capacity and power of Brahman is as real as Brahman Himself: yet māyā is not given a status that might introduce either the dualism of the power and powerful or renegate the powerful itself to a state of functional nullity as per Sākta system. Śrīmad Vallabhācārya, therefore, contemplated of māyā as a power in the sense of capacity so that it could be conceptually distinguished from Brahman; the distinction between a person and his capacity exists not in reality but only in the perverse, partial intellectual conception of the human mind. In truth, relation between māyā and Brahman, being transcendental, is beyond human understanding; it is why the ‘māyā’ is conceived even by the Vallabhites as an unthinkable and supra-rational power of God, a point that has been prominently emphasised by Jīva Gosvāmī Mahārāja of the Caitanya School.

Though the nature of māyā is inconceivable and supra-rational power of the transcendental and supreme Personality of Godhead, is beyond the human ken yet māyā, tha capacity of Brahman is also recognised as one of the six celestial (aprākṛta) and ideal attributes (gunas). It is through the unmeṣa or the opening of eyes of māyā, like appearance of lightening in the sky, that the motionless ocean of Absolute is stirred to manifest the essential and inherent attributes in their forms as gunas or attributes of Brahman- a situation technically called guṇonmeṣadaśā. Later on in the process of evolution the māyā comes to acquire the three gunas, viz., the sattva, rājasa, and tāmasa, both in their pure and impure forms. Therefore the māyā is conceived as sadaiśvaryayukta and triguṇātmikā.

A Scripture explains “It (māyā) is brilliantly painted, strong, creative of many seeds, consisting of manifested gunas, both in itself and in its procreations, appearing in the form of three deties— Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Rudra — and illuminated by the Consciousness of Brahman”. The text deeply demonstrates that māyā is the cause of the variety, the insentience, the ignorance, the manifoldness and the depravity of all phenomenal existence. The term ‘bahvaṃkura’ or the procreator of innumerable sprouts is suggestive of the truth that māyā is the cause of the gradual evolution of expansion of the world order till the creation of last particular (vyaṣṭi). Māyā is also the cause of Brahman’s descent in the form of the three deties. Yet, it would be a blunder to imagine that māyā by itself is sufficiently capable of all these functions. All these activities are possible only when māyā is illuminated by Consciousness of Brahman (caitanyadīpta). Śrīmad Vallabhācārya, therefore, asserts that all these functions of māyā, as the power of Brahman, are functions of Brahman. They, therefore, contend that the real material as well as the instrumental cause of the world-order is Brahman and not māyā as contemplated in some philosophical systems that in their zeal of attributing superiority to ‘power’ in comparison to the ‘powerful’ renegade Brahman to a subsidiary position. Māyā is only an instrument of revelation (darsayitr) whereas Brahman is the cause and agent of cosmic-creation.

Characteristics of Nature of Phenomenal Creations of Māyā

  1. The phenomenal creations of māyā are not illusion but are ābhāsas and ābhāsa, meaning they are not absolutely unreal just as a Brāhmaṇa (Brahmin) of loose conduct called Brāhmaṇābhāsa is not unreal. They are merely the middle-creations or antaralikī-sṛṣṭi occasioned through the causality of māyā, for example, the ‘objectivity’ in case of illusions and dreams.
  2. Māyā is not a limitative adjunct (upādhi) as conceived in śāmkara Vedānta; it is indistinguishably subsists with Brahman, as his power, like the moonbeams in the crystal waters of a lake. However, it becomes the upādhi of the parts (amsas) of Brahman, the jīvas, to introduce in them a sense of difference from God and other phenomenal qualities like arrogance, infatuation etc.

Vedic and Paurāṇika Interpretations

Brahman who functions to be many through māyā but as a matter of fact does not become many. All the apparent change and phenomenalization is only functional or practical (vyavahāra); in reality,is is always Brahman in His transcendental and pure status. This is why aupaniṣadika seers did not lay much emphasis on the instrumentality of māyā for explaining the world-creation which was, however, employed and emphasized in the Paurāṇika treatment of the subject. Yet there is no difference, according to Śrīmad Vallabhācārya, in these two accounts of the same subject, the Vedic and the Paurāṇika. Whereas, according to the Vedic authorities the Brahman Himself becomes the world without any aid, the Purāṇas emphasize that He takes the assistance of His own power, the māyā (māyāśakti). It is just like manufacturing a golden ornament in two ways; one, by the use of hammer and other instruments, and other by the process of putting molten gold into different shapes. In the Paurāṇika interpretation the world-order is conceived and explained through the instrumentality of māyā— supposed to be associated with Brahman’s material causality on the analogy of the gold put into blocks — the world order and the prapañca being permeated by māyā is also indicated by the term māyā. In both cases, the ornament produced is gold put into different shapes. Likewise it should be remembered that the world remains an aspect of Brahman; it only explanation that is different.