Maya an important concept of Snakara's Advaita (monistic) philosophy. The doctrine of maya is the pivotal principle in the authoritative pronouncement of Advaita philosophy about the nature of the ultimate reality and of the world of experience. A cardinal point in Sankara's philosophy is his doctrine of maya. He has spoken so much about the world to be sheer a maya that his philosophy is often called 'Mayavada'. The word 'maya' does not have any unalterable and fixed meaning in the history of Vedanta philosophy. What is meant in the Vedic literature seems at the first sight to be almost contradictory to its later meaning. Because of the fluidity of the word 'maya' and its unfixed meaning, it has been much-misunderstood and much-abused in Indian philosophy.
As a monistic Sankara conceives of only one reality, God or Brahman, and holds that there is nothing real other than this reality. The world is not a real creation, but a mere appearance which Brahman conjures up by his magical power of maya. Maya is then a creation of God. By his inscrutable power of maya God makes the world appear, which people take as real due to their ignorance (avidya).
The term 'maya' is derived from the Sanskrit root 'ma' which has been used in different senses viz. 'to measure', 'to build', 'to know' etc, but generally it means the first one ie, by which the immeasurable Brahman appears to as if measured. There are various shades of meaning in which the word maya is used. In the Vedas the term maya is used as prajna, kapata, mysterious and magical element, power or sakti, knowledge of sacred rites and wondrous art. In the Upanisads it is used as prakriti, prapavca, illusion and mystery. The Bhagavad Gita uses the term maya as prakriti and the ignorance of the individual soul. In the Brahma-Sutra the term is used only as illusion. Acarya Gaudapada uses the term as illusion or appearance, the principle of individuation, prana, the principle of creation and the power of Iswara.
Sankara's philosophy rests on two general postulates: (a) the absolutely real is never sublated and (b) the absolutely unreal is never cognised. The example for the absolutely real is Brahman and the examples of the absolutely unreal are son of a barren woman, the horns of a hare, etc. Sankara holds that in between these two categories the whole world of plurality is caught up. The world of plurality which we perceive is neither real nor unreal, it is indeterminable. This indeterminable nature of the world is connoted by the term maya. It explains the fundamental contrast between Brahman and the universe.
It may be mentioned here that Sankara propounded the doctrine of maya for two reasons: (a) to reconcile the Upanisadic statements about the creation and (b) to explain the nature of the universe. In the Upanisads there are descriptions of Brahman as really devoid of all assignable attributes. Here Sankara agues that if Brahman's creatorship is accepted to be real, the teachings about the disappearance of all multiplicity on the realization of Brahman cannot be understood. If the world were real how could it disappearFoodgrain Knowledge can dispel only the non-real appear as real, not what is actually real. This idea furnishes Sankara with the clue to the mystery of the world. He says that if the world is considered to be maya or mere appearance, then the apparent contradictions of the Upanisadic statements can be reconciled.
To prove that the world is maya Sankara used many examples. Of these, the rope-snake illusion is the most important one. He argues that because of our ignorance we consider the snake to be real but when we have correct knowledge the snake disappears. Much in the same way, because of ignorance we consider the world of multiplicity as real, but when we have true knowledge it we can realize that behind this world there is one ultimate truth and that is Brahman. In the rope-snake illusion the snake is neither real nor unreal, neither none nor both. It is indeterminable or anirvacaniya. Sankara holds that for the same reason the world of maya is indeterminable. Ramanuja, another important philosopher belonging to the Vedanta school, vehemently criticized Sankara's doctrine of maya. He has put forward seven serious arguments against Sankara's doctrine of maya and these arguments are known in Indian philosophy as saptanupapatti or seven logical errors in Sankara's doctrine of maya. [Azizun Nahar Islam]