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Maya and Lila – Origin of Universe

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One of the questions that seekers, philosophers, scientists and theologian’s world over have involved themselves from time immemorial is about the origin of the universe. The views vary from our Universe coming out of Big Bang to creationist views of world being created one fine day by God. It is only in Hindu religion that one finds a comprehensive analysis and explanation of various aspects and realms of Cosmos and its origin.

To understanding about the Creation/Origin of the Universe, it is important to understand the relationship between World and God according to Hindu philosophy. God and World, the Creator and the Created are not two distinct entities but only they appear to be so. In the Vyavahrika plane(1) (the Mundane/Relative), the Man, World and the God appear and function as distinct from one another, but in Paramarthika plane (The Absolute plane) there is only One, call it God or Brahman or Atman. In other words, God is the sum total of all existence.

Chandogya Upanishad proclaims “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma(2)” meaning “Everything is Brahman/God”. All the existence, the entire cosmos, everything that ever existed is nothing but Brahman. The same has been more explicitly mentioned in Taittiriya Upanishad-

“yatO vA imAni bhUtAni jAyantE
yEna jATAni jIvanti
yat prayant-yabhi-sam-vishanti
tadvijigyasasva tad brahmeti” (3)

“From which all the creatures (bhUta) are born, being born by which they sustain and into which they merge back, Know that as Brahman”.

The world/cosmos with all its multiplicities are not separate from God but have their origin in him and they sustain in him and merge back into him. Brahman is both the material and intelligent cause for this universe. To accomplish any work (Karya) – For example creating a pot, a base material (Soil) called as “Upadana” in scriptures and a person (the potter) who accomplishes the task called as “Karta” is needed.

Shastras term this as “Upadana Karana/material cause” and “Nimmita Karana/Intelligent or Efficient cause”. In case of the Universe, Brahman is both the Upadana Karana and the Nimmita Karana. That is, God does not create any universe separate from it but only has manifested it out of his own-self in other-words God has himself become Cosmos.

To the question, “How exactly does Brahman manifest Universe?” The Shastras explain two ways in which an already existing entity (Karana/Cause) has become another entity (Karya/Effect) – The Parinama Vada and the Vivarta Vada. “Parinama vada(4)” refers to a real transformation of an object into another object, Ex: Milk turning in Curd, mud becoming pot etc. “Vivarta vada” refers to an apparent transformation of one object into another, Ex: a rope being mistaken for snake, a mirage in a desert etc.

In the case of Universe, the “Parinama vada” does not hold. If God has indeed undergone complete and real transformation and become Cosmos, the way milk becomes curd, then there would have been no difference between God and World in Vyavaharika state. Then in Vyvaharika State, there would not have been any God instead only sensory world. Just as once Milk turns into Curd, it ceases to be milk and cannot turn back into milk, so also God will cease to exist once it transforms completely into Universe.But such a materialistic view is not supported by Hindu Shastras which proclaim Brahman as being- “Nithya(Eternal), Nishkalam(Without parts/divisions), Nishkriyam (without action) Shantham(Calm), Niravadhyam (Flawless), Niranjanam(Stainless)”. Instead, Vedanta Philosophy explains that the Brahman manifests Universe, just as rope appears snake (Vivarta vada). That is, there is only an apparent transformation of God into Universe. In case of snake, rope was the Upadana Karana/Material cause and in case of universe, Brahman is the Upadana Karana. This phenomenon of Apparent Manifestation is termed as “Maya” and the Power of Brahman to achieve it is termed as “Maya Shakti”. Adi Shankaracharya in Maya Panchakam says-

“nirupama nithya niramshakeepyakhande
mayi chiti sarva nikalpanaadishunye |
ghatayati jagadeesha-jeeva-bhedam
tvaghatita ghatanaapatiiyasi maaya ||”(5)

In Brahman who is Unique, Eternal, without parts, Absolute, It is Maya which creates the distinctions of Man, World and God. There is nothing impossible for Maya.

Hence, it is Brahman who creates/manifests this universe using his power of Maya. Hence, Lord Krishna was described as Mayapati- Lord of Maya.  In Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna says-

“ajo ’pi sann avyayatma
bhutanam isvaro ’pi san |
prakritim svam adhisthaya
sambhavamy atma-mayaya ||”(6)

Though I am birthless, undecaying by nature, and the Lord of beings, (still) by subjugating My Prakriti, I take birth by means of My own Maya.

Lord Krishna, an Avatara of God himself is proclaiming that he creates the whole universe by his power of Maya. But now a question arises, why did Brahman need to manifest this Apparent Universe? To achieve what goal?

The Shastras say that for God, the whole manifestation is just Lila/ a Divine play. It is a spontaneous manifestation for Brahman. This manifestation is not an activity/kartattva as in Paramarthika state, there is no duality of Karta and Karya. Brahman himself is Karta-doer, Karana-cause and the Karya-activity. Hence, the whole manifestation of Universe has been described as Lila- a spontaneous play. Further, because it is a Lila and not a Karya, there is no end goal or results to achieve because Brahman intends to achieve nothing as he is everything. It is Brahman’s very Svabhava/nature to continuously manifest and dissolve and re-manifest the cosmos. Hence, God is also called as “Lalita” meaning “She who plays” by Shaktas stressing the fact that playing Lila is God’s very own Svabhava.

Many people have this misconception that Maya and Lila are different and at times contradictory. But it is not so. They both refer to same phenomenon but only stressing on two different aspect of it. Whereas the term “Maya” stresses that Brahman is the Upadana Karana of this Universe, the term “Lila” stresses that Brahman is the “Nimitta Karana” of the Universe. “Maya” answers the question “How the Universe was created” and “Lila” answers the question “Why the Universe was created”.


1.For detailed explanation of Vyavaharika and Paramartika states, refer my article “The Two Realities”.
2.Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1.
3.Taittiriya Upanishad 3.1.3.
4.There is one more doctrine called “Arambavada/Asat-Karya-vada” which says that, an object which was non-existant before was newly created. This view about Universe is held by Nyaya School which propounds that Universe was created by Ishwara by using Anu/atoms. Here, Anu is the upadana karana and Ishwara is nimitta karana. But, Vedanta Shastras and Upanishads does not accept this doctrine. According to the Shastras, World existed in potential/sukshma form in Brahman from before.  Hence, Brahman only manifests Universe and does not actually create it.
5.Maya Panchakam Verse 1
6.Bhagvad Gita 4.6

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4 Responses to "Maya and Lila – Origin of Universe"

  1. Kishan Bhatia says:

    Life a latest book by a Western scholar claims is reduced to a 20 watt fountain of energy. Has you heard of or read the book called Biocentrism?

    Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza, Bob Berman

    A brief description of the 20 watt fountain of energy is offered at

    Central idea of the book is, “Does Death Exist? New Theory Says ‘No'”

    My comments follow

    In living humans a 20 watt fountain of energy governs all our actions. At death the center for the 20 watt fountain of energy escapes from the body and returns to unite with energy in universe.

    Hindus about 5,000 years ago called it soul and Hindu Geeta or Bhagwat Gita, the Hindu equivalent of Abrahamic Bible discusses it as well as what physicists call Big Bang Theory of the origin of universe.

    Gita essentially was most likely the first attempt to offer a psychology for Vedic morality and ethics and theoretical physics ideas to explain the origin of world.

    Please see a one hour video lecture following an inroduction of the author, Rajiv Malhotra.

    Rajiv Malhotra is the founder and president of the Princeton, NJ-based Infinity Foundation. An Indian-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader, he has devoted himself, for the last ten years, to clarifying the many misperception about Indie traditions in America and amongst Indians.

    He is an active writer, columnist, and speaker on a variety of topics, including the traditions and cultures of India, the Indian Diaspora, globalization, and East-West relations. Rajiv has been appointed to the Asian-American Commission for the State of New Jersey, where he serves as the Chairman for the Education Committee, which was created to start an Asian Studies program in schools. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Red Cross and has volunteered in local hospice and AIDS counseling.

    On April 1, 2013 Rajiv Malhotra made an outstanding presentation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai of some of his research findings on how Indian ideas get appropriated by the West, re-formulated and then re-exported back to India as something “Made in America”. His 58.48 min. lecture was so absorbing that it kept me glued in till the end.

    Besides the lecture itself, separate videos are listed below for each major topic of Q&A. I found these Q&A as stimulating as the lecture itself.

    I would commend the lecture and the discussion to the attention of every person of Indian origin.


    Ram Narayanan

    IIT Mumbai Lecture & Discussion on:
    Are Indians Buying Back Their Own Ideas From The West?

    Click for links to all the videos

    1) Lecture: Are Indians buying back their own ideas from the West? – View

    2) Discussion: Brand India & Narayan Murthy – View

    3) Discussion: How does one attribute “discovery”? – View

    4) Discussion: My argument with a social scientist – View

    5) Discussion: Overview of how/why I got personally involved in these issues – View

    6) Discussion: Pro’s & Cons of Chaos, Decentralization, Self-Organization – View

    7) Discussion: Our own neglect as a factor causing UTurns – View

    8) Discussion: Loss of our purva-paksha tradition and its consequences – View

    9) Discussion: Decolonization – View

    10) Discussion: Comment on social sciences in India – View

  2. Hariharan says:

    This article is a wrong interpretation of the hindu scriptures regarding God’s creation and its purpose. It is just mimicking the advaita point of vivarta vada which is also wrong like parinama vada.
    Secondly, Maya is not illusion as it is used in the advaitic sense.
    It is the power of lord and not a magic creation. Its purpose is to give chance for the individual soul to realise its nature. Thirdly, in BG Sri Krishna talks about his own incarnation and how he takes ‘birth’ by his own power(Maya?). It is not possible to explain all these things by analogy which is applicable to sensible things of the world. God creates the world like how spider weaves the web out of its saliva and then withdraws. That’s how we can conceive of God’s creation.

  3. Arun Pillai says:

    How can i access to Rajiv Malhotra IIT lecture video?

    Arun Pillai

  4. C pande says:

    Wonderful article, but please note the explanation is only valid, if you are still in the grip of maya.
    No explanation is necessary if you are out of it.

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