In common parlance, maya refers to deception, illusion or false appearance. Some people are, therefore, misled to believe that the world is only an illusion. Gita does not subscribe to this view. It does not believe that the beings, the objects and the events of the universe are unreal.
The power of self-creation of the Supreme Lord, Ishvara, by which He creates and sustains the universe is called maya. It is the energy which enables Him to produce ever-changing world. The universe so created is also referred to as maya.
Krishna says in shloka 4.6 that though unborn, imperishable and the lord of all creations ; yet establishing Himself in His own nature, He comes into being, through His inner power (maya). In other words, Ishvara assumes human form through maya, His power of self-becoming.
In shloka 7.7, it is stated that all the existences of the world are held together by Ishvara as beads on the string of a necklace. Further, it has been stated in shloka 18.61 that Ishvara, dwelling in the hearts of all beings, causes them, by His maya, to revolve around in the world in such a manner as if they were mounted on a machine.
Thus, Ishvara not only creates the universe through His mystic power, maya, but also supports it, holds it together and makes it to move in a systematic manner, through that very power. Seated in the hearts of all beings, He presides over the process of evolution.
There is nothing in these shlokas to suggest that the creations are a mere appearance. The view that the universe created by Ishvara through His cosmic energy, maya, is real and not only an illusion has been re-iterated in shlokas 16.8 and 16.9. It has been stated in these shlokas that only the demoniac people say that the world is unreal, without a basis and without a lord. Only such people of low intelligence believe that the creation is not brought about in a regular sequence. In other words, Gita teaches that the material world is real and it conforms to a settled order.
Origin of the universe has been explained in shlokas 7.4 to 7.6. It has been stated that Ishvara has two types of natures namely the material nature (apara prakriti – the lower nature) and the consciousness nature (para prakriti – the higher nature). While the former consists of earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, buddhi and self-sense ; the latter comprises of the souls. Whereas the material nature is perishable, the soul is immortal and imperishable. The cosmic process arises as a result of interaction between these two natures of the Supreme Lord. All beings take birth in them. Thus, whole of the cosmos is created by these two natures of Ishvara.
The same theme that all beings arise out of the union of material and consciousness natures has been reiterated in shlokas 14.3 and 14.4. It has been stated in these two shlokas that mahad brahma (the total material existence) is the womb (source of birth) of all the embodied beings that appear in different species of life ; and Ishvara is the seed giving father. That is how births of all living beings become possible.
It has been stated in shloka 13.27 that whatever being is born, moving or non-moving, it has sprung from the union of the field (kshetra – matter) and the knower of the field (kshetragya – consciousness).
The universe thus arises out of the union of Infinite with the finite. As material nature and also the spirit belong to Ishvara, He is the father and also the mother of whole of the universe.
Ishvara is the cause and pluralistic world is the effect. Material world is called lower nature of Ishvara as cause is always considered to be more real than the effect. The universe is called lower nature also because the varied manifestations of the Supreme Lord are transient whereas He Himself is unchanging. Though representing the lower nature of Ishvara, reality of the physical world cannot be denied.
The mysteries of maya have further been unravelled in shloka 7.14 wherein Krishna says :
‘This divine maya of Mine, consisting of the three modes, is very difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can certainly cross beyond it.’
The fact that maya has been labelled as divine suggests that the material world is created by Ishvara by His own power of self-creation. That which is divine cannot be illusionary. When Krishna says maya of Mine, consisting of the three modes, it means that the material world belongs to the Supreme Lord. It is supported and nurtured by Him.
Further, it has been stated that it is very difficult to overcome maya. Why ? Because God creates the universe and hides behind His creation. Glamour of the universe, so created through maya, is very difficult to resist. Attracted by objects of the senses, man is inclined towards them instead of directing his mind towards the Creator. Attraction of the sense objects leads him away from Ishvara. Due to such attraction of maya, the soul which is otherwise free, finds itself in bondage. It is only when one transcends maya, the prakriti and its modes, that he can perceive the reality of the Supreme.
How can the veil of maya be pierced ? Maya can be overcome by surrendering to the Supreme Lord, who is beyond the gunas. By becoming one with Him, one can transcend all forms of maya.