The literal meaning of the word maya is magic. However, from the point of view of Advaita Vedanta, maya and avidya are the same. Just as avidya or ignorance has the power, as it were, to hide Brahman and project something else, such as the world, on it, so also maya, as it were, can cover up Brahman and project the world onto it. Maya cannot really cover the Reality that is Brah man. A patch of cloud can never cover the sun. It only covers the eyes of those who are looking at the sun. In the same way maya covers our knowing ability and thus obstructs our knowledge of Brahman.
As long as our ignorance of Brahman lasts, the world must appear to be real to us. So it is natural for us to ask how and when this world of ours was created. Advaita Vedanta says that there are two answers to this.
The first answer is that this world is our dream. We have dreamed up this world. The second answer is that this world is the product of Saguna Brahman's power of magic ( maya). Saguna Brahman has used his maya or magical power to create this world which is unreal like our dream worlds. The Taittiriya Upanishad says that after creating the world (using his magical power or maya) he (Paramatman) entered into it. It is very much like us creating our individual dream worlds and entering into them. But the difference is that due to our ignorance our dream worlds seem to be real to us. Saguna Brahman, however, does not have that kind of ignorance.
In one sense, we, the individuals living in this world, are like so many "dream persons" existing in Saguna Brahman's conjured up world. Since we are posited in the domain of maya, looking through the veil of maya,from our point of view Nirguna Brahman appears to be Saguna Brahman. In reality Saguna Brahman is no other than Nirguna Brahman.
But Nirguna Brahman is a non-doer. Therefore, the question arises, "How is it possible for Nirguna Brahman, in the garb of Saguna Brahman, to create anything, such as this world?"
This question can be answered by drawing the reader's attention to the fact that this world, from the point of view of Nirguna Brahman, is not real. It does not exist for Nirguna Brahman. Therefore, Nirguna Brahman is neither a doer nor a creator. From our point of view, however, Saguna Brahman, or lshvara, is the Reality. It is Saguna Brahman who has by his maya conjured up this world, which is real to us. Therefore, He alone is the creator and sustainer of this world.
How did Saguna Brahman create this world ? Does Advaita Vedanta have anything to say about this ? According to Advaita Vedanta, there are two concepts of creation based on the reliable testimony of the scriptures.
First concept of creation
Saguna Brahman first created the element akasha, (a kind of extremely fine matter or the "sky element"). Akasha gradually underwent a process of evolution. From akasha came the element vayu (a fine gaseous substance or the "air element"). From vayu came the element agni (an extremely subtle energy or intense heat, also called the "fire element"). From agni came the element ap (an extremely subtle liquid; it is also called the "water element"). From ap came the element prithivi (extremely fine solid matter;it is also called the "earth element")..
Something that has come into being is called a bhuta in Sanskrit. Therefore, these five manifested elements are called bhutas. These elements are extremely subtle. The Sanskrit counterparts of the wordsfive and subtle are respectively pancha and sukshma. Therefore, these five subtle elements are called pancha sukshma-bhutas.
These five subtle elements then mingle together in five different ways to produce the five gross (sthula) elements.It is like the subtle presence of the future banyan tree in a seed becoming a full grown banyan tree. These five gross elements are called pancha sthula-bhutas. The process of mixing the five subtle elements to produce the five gross elements is called panchikarana.
Second concept of creation
The Kathopanishad (verse 2/3/2, first line) says:
"Whatever there is-such as the whole universe comes out of Brahma n and keeps on vibrating."In other words, the cause of this universe is Brahman. All objects, living or non-living, are vibrating, but obviously not at the same frequency.Had they been vibrating at the same frequency they would all be the same object. Had they not vibrated at all they would be no different from Brahman.
This supposition is borne out by the fact that Brahman does not vibrate, only created objects that have come out of Brahma n do. This also indicates that there must be some direct connection between creation and vibration. We can therefore safely suppose that, due to different frequencies of vibration, Brahman appears to have become all the different objects of this universe, whether living or non living. Strangely enough,this concept is very similar to the recent concept of scientists that the vibrations of super string, membrane and D-Brane have given rise to this manifold universe.
According to Advaita Vedanta, maya has an unknown beginning, but it does have an end. This can be explained by our dream experience.The dream world, which is not real, is created by our minds almost magically.But in order to create the dream world, our minds first have to be ignorant of the existence of the world that we experience during our waking state. This ignorance is comparable to maya. This ignorance is the magical power that creates the dream world along with "dream time" and "dream space."
While in the dream world, it is not possible for us to know when the dream world started. In other words, it has an unknown beginning. As soon as we wake up our dream world is annihilated. The dream world is annihilated by our waking experience or the awareness of the world experienced by us during our waking state.
It is not possible for us to know Maya
In any act of knowing, the "knower" and "the object known" have to be separate from each other. They cannot be the same.In order for us to know maya, it has to be separate from us. Individuals
like us are the products of maya and we are all posited within the domain of may a.Maya and we individuals are not separate from each other, just as chocolate and a bear-shaped chocolate candy are not different from each other.
As we are identical with maya, we cannot know maya. For this reason, maya is not only unknowable; it is inexplicable as well (anirvachaniya).
Does maya exist ?
In answer to this question Advaita Vedanta says, "We can't say that maya exists, nor can we say that maya does not exist. For all practical purposes we must admit that maya must exist. If we don't accept maya's existence then we cannot explain the existence of this world. Then again, when we realize our Brahman-ness maya disappears.Therefore, we can neither say that maya exists, nor can we say that maya doesn't exist. Maya is inexplicable."