MĀYĀ, written and pronounced in Punjabi as māiā. As a philosophic category in the Indian tradition, māyā is interpreted variously as a veil or curtain concealing reality; the phenomenal world as it appears over against things-in-themselves; the grand illusion or the cosmic principle of illusion. Māyā is assumed to stand between man and reality, producing error and illusion in the human mind, and creating difficulties in the individual's progress to a state of knowledge and bliss.
The Advaitic conception of māyā endows it with unique and matchless powers. It is conceived as parallel to Brahm, for both are treated as beginning less (anādi) and beyond adequate expression in human terms. The world of names and forms is a product of māyā, which is indicative of its powers of creating illusion and of concealing reality. Only for a spiritually advanced individual māyā ceases to be, and Brahmā alone remains. Māyā continues to exist for the rest of mankind as an objective entity.
Sikhism does not subscribe to this extreme objectification of māyā in the Vedāntic theory. The Gurūs do not assign to it the character of a metaphysical category in the framework of their scriptural compositions. Of course, the figures of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva, as also of māyā, frequently find place in gurbāṇī (utterance of the Gurūs) indicative of a link with the tradition of Indian thought; but these figures stand only for the powers of the Divine. Brahmā, for instance, is not to be taken in the literal sense of a creator with absolute authority. Likewise, māyā as an independent creative power would be out of place with the spirit of gurbāṇī. The only agency that governs the process of nature is nature itself as a manifestation of hukam, the Divine Ordinance. Gurū Nānak describes such a world as an empty shadow misleading the world (GG, 932). It is an ephemeral world falsely viewed as eternal in itself. It is like the fire of a single straw, a cloud's shadow becoming flood water (GG, 717).
Emphasis on the ephemerality and non-permanence of the cosmic order is, however, only one interpretation of the Gurūs' conception of māyā and the world. Māyā is that of which the essence is time; it has come into being at the will of the Divine, and must disappear when He so ordains. In other words, māyā or phenomenal Nature is neither beginning less nor self-sufficient. It rests in the Creator, whose creation it is. But at the same time, it is also the embodied manifestation of the Eternal Spirit. Transient it may be, but it is not unreal. This world is the abode of God; the True and Eternal one resides in it (GG, 463).
In modern times, māyā has been interpreted in several ways, departing from the exclusive meaning assigned to it by the orthodox Indian view, viz. grand illusion, giving māyā an ontological status while denying reality to it. Dr Rādhākrishnan is known to have distinguished phenomenality and unreality, a view that comes quite close to the Sikh view. The world is phenomenal but not unreal; it is not real either. In Rādhākrishnan, who seeks to unite Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja taking their positions as complementary, at least six meanings of the term māyā, other than ‘grand illusion', have been discerned. These are : inexpressibility of māyā, as the relation between the Absolute and the world, not fully comprehensible to the human mind; creative activity of God, or his power of self-becoming (māyā- śakti); duality of all things in the world-process, a mixture of spirit and nature; primal matter (prakritī), that is, the Absolute with māyā; concealment : God is enveloped in the cloak of māyā; and lastly, one-sided dependence, that is of the world on the Absolute.
In gurbāṇī, māyā is also equated with wealth (material goods) as also with the sense of attachment to worldly possessions. Most often, the term denotes delusion, since under the spell of māyā, the mind is not able to distinguish truth from falsehood, the ever-lasting from the ephemeral, the essence from mere appearance. In a word, māyā in Sikhism connotes avidyā, that is ignorance. This is the subjective dimension of māyā, as opposed to the Advaitic approach that not only emphasizes the objective aspect, but leads to an emphatic objectification in its treatment of the concept. The Sikh system acknowledges the existence of māyā, and lays stress on the lessening of its spell on the human mind, so that with the liberated psychic faculties, one may attain to the state of spiritual enlightenment — a state wholly exempt from the trance of māyā, a state of being liberated from its web and being one with the Absolute.