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How to Get Out of the Clutches of Maya

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by Satsvarupa dasa Adhikari (ISKCON-Boston)

The Sanskrit word maya means that which is not. In other words, it is illusion. For example, if a servant of a king thinks that he is the king, that is illusion. Generally, it is the illusion of all human beings that they are the lords of all they survey. But the actual fact is that they are under the grip of strict laws. They are trying to exploit the resources of material nature, but are becoming more entangled in nature’s complexities. Since this maya is illusion, or unreality, it can be stopped simply by reviving the real, original nature of the human being. This is called Krsna consciousness. According to the Bhagavad-gita, the mistaken idea that we have of ourselves and of our environment makes it impossible for us to enjoy our real, eternal nature. Moreover, once into the predicament of being under illusion, it is very difficult to get out of it.

On hearing the description of our entanglement in maya’s clutches, one might well ask, “How did we ever get into such a complicated predicament in the first place?” Another fair question is, “Why should God put anyone into the illusion that he is something which he is not?” The third question to be answered is, “How can one actually get out of maya?” We fall into maya because we are forgetful of our real selves. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has explained that it is not very important to trace out when this happened. When people hear of the kingdom of God and of the original nature, blissful, eternal and full of life, they ask, “If it were so nice, why would I leave?” The answer to the question of when we fell is there in the Vedic literature. Specifically, in the Seventh Chapter, twenty-seventh verse, of Bhagavad-gita, it is stated that we are born into this material world of delusion when we are overcome by our desire to be God and by our hatred of Him. As for the time when we fell, it is untraceably long ago, so long that it is called a time immemorial. But more important than tracing out just when we fell is finding out how we can be rescued from our present fallen state. In other words, if one is now very poor, it is not important that he was once rich. Or if one says, “Once I had much butter,” but now he does not have butter, the important thing is that now he has no butter. Similarly, we can observe that we are now in illusion. Some may think that these statements are word jugglery. Often a person tells us, “Never mind spiritual consciousness. I am already completely liberated. Do not call this illusion—I am happy here.” But let us examine the real nature of the material world, the kingdom of maya.

Maya means to live in this material world and to think that it is one’s permanent place and that one can become happy here. Ask a person living in this maya, “Are you happy?” and he may answer, “Yes, I am happy.” But what is this happiness? Ask him further, “Do you like to grow old?”

“No,” he’ll answer.

Then, “Do you like disease?”

“No.”

“Do you like to die?”

“No.” Then where is happiness? As long as we have to suffer these very basic defects to life, there can be no happiness.

The way out of maya is the process of self-realization. By understanding who we are and understanding our relationship to God, we can understand that we are in maya and that it is no good. Self-realization and God realization begin with dissatisfaction. When we are dissatisfied, then we can search out liberation in our original state. By finding out our true nature, we can become free from the miseries of maya. But we must not think that we are happy in maya. To accuse the transcendentalist or spiritualist of being morbid because of his extreme criticism of the material world and its attractions is false. Rather, it is morbid to think that this life, which leads only to death, is everything. It is morbid to think that one is enjoying his body and its sensual pleasures when every day one can see side by side a beautiful young girl and a decrepit old woman and observe how quickly the change takes place. It is morbid to try to squeeze pleasure out of the body, mistaking the body for the real self. To treat the body as the self is as foolish as to try to eat by putting foodstuffs in one’s ear rather than one’s mouth. We can see from common affairs or learn from the Gita that we constantly change our body, but the real self exists eternally. The craziness of thinking that our eternal self is the temporary body is maya. But because the majority of people are in maya consciousness, this has become the standard of sanity in modern civilization. The proper use of the human form of life is to inquire with dissatisfaction about this state of suffering in maya. Usually when someone is afflicted with a disease, he will say with a feeling of dull resignation, “All right, let me go to the doctor.” But one who inquires, “Why do I have to suffer? Who am I? Why must I endure disease and old age?” is intelligent. When such a process of inquiry begins, the sincere, determined searcher finally ends with God.

These are not questions of mental exercise or philosophical speculation. Rather, the inquiries, “Who am I? What am I meant to do? Where do I go after death?” are questions that are dormant and natural in all living entities. These questions are asked by intelligent men, and the real answers to these inquiries satisfy the innermost need of the soul. Of course, one may ask such questions without sincerity, or one may ask them of someone who is not an authorized spiritual master, and so one may go on suffering birth after birth because it is very difficult to free oneself from the stringent laws of material nature. Therefore, among the qualifications of a devotee is gravity. One should listen seriously when questions about suffering in life are discussed, and one should not think that simply because one is young or intoxicated, there are actually no problems. The problems of birth, death, disease and old age cannot be done away with by medicine or technology or poetry or philosophy, nor should one think that one can become God and thus become free from material nature’s stringent laws. Actually it is very simple: maya is there because of our false consciousness. And it can be removed as soon as the consciousness is changed to reality. If a servant is trying to act as king, he will be frustrated because his real position is servant. But if he lives as a servant, he can enjoy all the facilities of his real position, without the anxieties of trying to be something he is not. Therefore, everyone should understand that this material life is a diseased state and that because we are diseased, we cannot enjoy. We must first become well. We must first get out of maya. Anyone who is teaching a process whereby people can enjoy without changing from bodily consciousness to real or spiritual consciousness, Krsna consciousness, is cheating, just as a doctor cheats if he tells an ailing patient, “Please get up and enjoy.” No! The true doctor who has diagnosed an illness, says to the person, “You cannot enjoy now: you must lie in bed, take these medicines, and when you become well, then you can enjoy.”

Maya traps us by offering us allurements in the way of sensual pleasures and by confining us to designations of the ego. By surrender to Krsna these attractions vanish before the superior attractions of true spiritual life. Of the sensual pleasures, the chief is sex life. The difficulty with sex life is that it necessitates trying to enjoy on the bodily platform, whereas our real nature is not satisfied by the sexual act, but is left unsatiated, just as a hungry man is left unsatisfied if one buys him expensive clothes or takes him to see a movie. Impetuously, madly, one thinks that he can become happy by sex life, but after repeated attempts, the complete satisfaction is still not attained. The satisfaction is only flickering. The Srimad-Bhagavatam states that by engagement in illicit association with women a man loses the qualities of truthfulness, cleanliness, mercifulness, gravity, spiritual intelligence, shyness, austerity, fame, forgiveness, control of the mind and senses, and fortune. Even when a man has sex with his wife and decides to raise a family, he becomes trapped in a desire to maintain economic status and social prestige and to elevate the material standard of his family. In this way maya manipulates a man by his attraction for sex and leads him away from all possibilities of taking to the path of self-realization and real eternal enjoyment. We must understand that although maya is dictating, we are victimized only because of misuse of our own free will.

The Call Of Krsna

Opposed to maya’s dictation is the call of Krsna, coming through the spiritual master or pure devotee. Krsna appears in the form of scriptures and in the form of His instructions carried by pure devotees. The devotees always seek to call back the lost souls from the kingdom of maya to where they can enjoy their real nature. The human being has wandered through many species of life—animal life, plant life, and all other lower forms of life—and in most forms of life one is unable to free himself from the experience of repeated miseries. The human form of life, however, is a special advantage for getting out of this entanglement. Therefore, it is imperative that we hear and take to a practical path before death comes.

The chief symptoms of the disease of maya are desire for sex life and false identification. The ideas that one is an American or a Russian or a black man or a white man are designations that cover one’s real self. Our real self is spirit soul, part and parcel of God. These other things are only the outer coverings and are not our ultimate identity. It is stated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam that a person who thinks that he is his body, which is made of air and bile, or who thinks that the land of his birth is worshipable, is no better than a cow or an elephant. We will only be Americans or Russians for this one body, and at the time of death we do not know where we will go. To cling to that false identification is also maya, or “that which is not.” Rather, we should put our energies into finding our real, eternal nature, which continues from one body to another. Actually I do not even belong to the human race; it is only a temporary designation. I am now wearing a shirt and pants, but I do not think that my shirt and pants are my real self. When the shirt and pants wear out, then I get new ones. But my self will continue. Similarly, I am not my car when I drive in my car.

In forgetfulness of our real Krsna consciousness, we are trying to enjoy in a false way in terms of bodily pleasure and false designation, and we do not find real happiness because we are without Krsna, who is our true and dearmost friend. To understand that we are not the lords of all we survey, we do not need to inquire into scriptures. Simply by common affairs, anyone can see it. One may think that he is free, just as a cow on the end of a long rope with a ring in his nose may think himself free because he has a long rope, but eventually he sees that he is not free. When one comes to the conclusion that he is under the stringent laws of material nature, that he is in fact bound up by limiting conditions and limiting senses, and that he is not satisfied by any amount of sensual enjoyment, and when he can conclude that his position is temporary although he desires an eternally happy position, then he can seek out something greater, and he can inquire about God, the controller.

Misuse Of Free Will

Let us examine the intents of the controller. Why is He putting the living entities under the stringent laws of material nature? Krsna says that all the living entities who are struggling in the material nature are His parts and parcels. Therefore one might ask why He doesn’t stop this struggle at once and simply bring the souls out of their illusion. The answer is that although the Supreme Lord is full of compassion for His parts and parcels, they are eternally individuals by His divine will, and thus each individual has a minute amount of free will. His free will is such that he can decide either to be in maya or to be with Krsna. Once he decides to be in maya, his free will stops, and maya acts upon him. For example, one can decide whether or not to put his finger in a flame, but once he puts his finger in the flame, the flame will act and burn him. That action of the flame is called the material nature. The individual spirit souls are just like Krsna and are originally intended to be with Him in spiritual bliss, yet because they are small, they are prone to come under the jurisdiction of material nature. Krsna Himself never comes under the influence of maya because He is the controller of maya. So why has He set up this material nature? Because the living entities desire it. The example is given of a child who sees her mother cooking in the kitchen and becomes envious of the mother’s superior position. The child declares to the mother, “No, I will be the cook. I will be the cook.” The mother, just out of a desire to quiet the third, may give her a toy kitchen set and let the child think that she is actually cooking. Another example is that when serious men are discussing something and a little child is in the room causing a disturbance, the child is put out of the room. Once the living entity becomes envious of God, then he is removed from His association and put into the material world where he himself can act as God. He must, however, come under the material laws. This is actually the reality under which we are all existing.

Influenced by maya, we forget our real position. A perfect example of the total forgetfulness to which one may come when he is put under the spell of the illusory nature of God was displayed by the demigod Indra when he was cursed by his spiritual master to become a pig on earth due to acting licentiously in the heavenly planets. When Indra was thus degraded to take the body of a pig, he took up his piggish activities and soon lived on a farm with a she-pig and piglets. After some time, the spiritual master returned to retrieve Indra, but Indra as a pig refused to be liberated to his former grand position, thinking in delusion that he had so many responsibilities. He refused his spiritual master: “No. I cannot go to heaven. Why are you saying that I am Indra? I am not Indra. I am a pig. I have so many responsibilities; I cannot leave. I am happy. I have my wife. I have my piglets. I have my stools.” This is the influence of maya.

Although it seems to be a punishment, maya also means God’s grace. If someone does not want the topmost spiritual life, the opportunity to go back to Godhead, but instead desires to cultivate ignorance, then he is put under the agency of maya so that he can try for happiness in the material world. The basic idea is that anyone who is born into a body has made a foolish choice; being born into the material world certifies one as a fool.

After Dissatisfaction

The signs of return to sanity are dissatisfaction and inquiry. Dissatisfaction refers to the realization that all is not well. Why must I grow old and diseased? Why must I die? After dissatisfaction comes the desire to inquire, to find a solution. The materialist is also seeking his solution to happiness, but his efforts are all patchwork. He tries to repair his body by going to a hospital, but soon the body will end. The real solution to bodily miseries is liberation from bodily existence. This spiritual knowledge solves things once and for all. When one realizes that this material world is useless to him, then he can come out of maya. Everyone born into a body is in maya, but by dissatisfaction and inquiry one may escape from maya’s clutches. The process to do this is God consciousness or self-realization. Therefore, the first step out of maya is to realize that one is in maya. This is not ignorance. This is intelligence; Ignorance is to think that one is living in reality within material life.

Prabhupada refers to the material world as the world of names. To a transcendentalist, buildings, machines, war, peace, politics and family are all just names, like the babble of waves at sea. The way out of maya is not through mental efforts. In the Bhagavad-gita it is stated by Krsna, “My divine energy, maya, is very difficult to surmount, but for one who has surrendered, it is very easy.”

The way to get out of maya is outlined by the Supreme Lord Himself in His incarnation as Kapiladeva. In the Third Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Devahuti, the mother of Kapila, asks Him questions exactly to this point: “How can there be any freedom for the soul as long as the material nature acts on him and binds him?” The living entity may desire freedom from the contamination of matter, but he is not given release. Once he desires to come into the material world, then he is already conditioned by it, and he has no opportunity to get control of it. Bhagavad-gita says that it is very difficult to get out of the clutches of material nature. Mental speculators, concocting in different ways, try to think that everything is void, that there is no God, and that even if there is a spiritual background of everything, it is impersonal. This speculation may go on, but actually it is very difficult to get out of the clutches of material nature. Devahuti asks, “One may speculate in many ways, but where is the chance of liberation as long as one is under the spell of material nature?” The answer is given in the Bhagavad-gita that only one who has surrendered himself unto the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord can be freed from the clutches of maya. When one gradually comes to the point of surrender, he can ask such an intelligent question: “How can one be liberated, how can one be in a pure state of spiritual existence, as long as he is strongly held by the modes of nature?” This is also an indication to the false meditators who artificially think that they are the Supreme Spirit and that they are controlling the activities of material nature. They may think, “Under my direction the sun is moving; under my direction the moon is rising,” and they may think that they can become free by such meditation. But it is seen that three minutes after their meditation, they are immediately captured by the modes of material nature, and they become thirsty: “I want to smoke or drink.” So they are under the strong grip of the material nature, although they are thinking that they are separated from the clutches of maya. Such a person sometimes thinks that everything is void and that there are no sinful or pious activities. But actually these are just atheistic inventions. The truth is that unless a living entity surrenders unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead as instructed in the Bhagavad-gita, there is no liberation or freedom from the clutches of matter. That is the transcendental fact.

When one misuses his free will and challenges, “Why shall Krsna be the all-in-all? I am as good as Krsna,” then desire and envy of Krsna bring about his material bondage. One may be a philosopher or a salvationist or a voidist and think that he is the Supreme and that he is everything, but as long as he has this desire or thinks that there is no God, the cause of his bondage remains, and there is no question of liberation.

Surrender Unto Krsna

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in this regard, “Theoretically one may analyze things and say that by knowledge has become freed and so on but actually as long as the cause is there, he is not free. The Bhagavad-gita confirms that after performing speculative activities for many, many births, when one actually comes to his real consciousness and surrenders unto the Supreme Lord, Krsna, then his fulfillment of research in knowledge is actually achieved. There is a gulf of difference between theoretical freedom and actual freedom from material bondage.” So if one gives up the auspicious path of devotional service and tries to know things by speculation, he is wasting his valuable time. The labor of speculation is ended only by exhaustion, and the result is only labor. It is like husking the skin of an empty paddy; there is no benefit because the rice is already gone. To get out of maya, one has to nullify the cause of entanglement, and then the effect will be different. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Supreme Personality of Godhead says. “One can get liberation only by seriously discharging devotional service unto Me. One must hear for a long time about Me or from Me and execute one’s prescribed duties without reaction. One will thus become freed from the contamination of matter.”

It is not that one has to leave the material world. One can remain in association with matter and still remain unaffected, if he is performing service to Krsna. If someone is in connection with the police department, that does not mean that he is a criminal. As long as one does not commit criminal acts, even though there is a police department, he is not punished. Similarly, the liberated soul is not affected, although he is in the material nature. Even the Supreme Personality of Godhead comes into association with matter when He descends, but He is not affected. So we can exist side by side with matter, but by using it for Krsna we are unaffected. This is called liberation and is achieved simply by engaging in devotional service.

One must perform his prescribed duties in Krsna consciousness. One does not have to change his duties: he just should perform them in Krsna consciousness. The criterion for success is whether by one’s profession or occupation the Supreme Personality of Godhead is satisfied. Everyone has some duty to perform, and its perfection is achieved if Krsna is satisfied by one’s acts. For example, Arjuna was a warrior. His prescribed duty was fighting, so the perfection of his fighting was tested by the satisfaction of Krsna. Krsna wanted him to fight, and as long as Arjuna was not willing to fight, he did not reach perfection. If a man wants to achieve perfection, then he should discharge his prescribed duties for the satisfaction of Krsna. All actions should be performed as a sacrifice for Krsna. In this age especially, one simply has to chant the names of God to achieve the perfection of sacrifice. By chanting, hearing and associating with devotees, one can bring this about. When one is fixed in serious devotional service and acts in that way, then he has no reaction and is freed from all contamination of the influence of the three modes of material nature. By continuous and regular hearing of the holy names and pastimes of the Personality of Godhead, the effects of contamination, such as lust and greed to enjoy and lord it over the material nature, are diminished, and one becomes situated in the mode of goodness. In that way he becomes fixed on the transcendental platform. To remain on the transcendental platform is to be liberated from material entanglement. That is the way in which to get out of the clutches of maya. The personification of maya, Mayadevi, the superintendent of the material world, performs the thankless duty of punishing all living entities who have the enjoying mentality, but she herself, as a servant of Krsna, becomes pleased when someone finally gets out of her clutches, and according to Prabhupada, she exclaims, “Ah, you have triumphed.” So everyone becomes happy when a soul becomes freed from maya and joins the association of Krsna in the kingdom of God. That kingdom of God begins as soon as one begins serious devotional service.

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