The Functions of Māyā in Yoga & Tantra

The Functions of Māyā in Yoga & Tantra

Written By Swami Ayyappa Giri

Māyā, to the siddhas, and to Saiva Siddhanta, cannot be characterized as simply “illusion”. The South Indian traditions of Yoga and Tantra have always maintained that māyā is of a material nature and in its essence is real within the context of material existence. As it is bonded with the five cloaks of the soul, the Kanchukas (limiting conditions) – Kalā, Rāga, Vidya, Kāla and Niyati. Māyā is both eternal and manifest at the very root of the universe.

In order to grow closer to the essence of any concept, it is useful to consider the etymology of the word that represents it.  The word Māyā is made up of two syllables , representing involution and representing evolution. The closing of the lips to make the sound mā, is physically and energetically a process of drawing in – hence, involution.  The wide opening of the mouth to make the sound is physically and energetically a process of opening out – hence, evolution.

Another way to divide the syllables that also takes us deeper to its essence is into māy, which means to cease from existence (in a spiritual sense, blend back into oneness) and ā to come into existence (in a spiritual sense, to become manifest).

So, to come from the oneness and become manifest is māyā, to withdraw from the gross material world and blend with the source of all, is also māyā. This interplay of manifesting and blending, or involving and evolving is what has brought many seers to know māyā as the very seed of the manifest world.  The world continually springs forth from māyā, and the world continually draws back into māyā. 

Many ancient sages have discussed two forms of māyā, Shuddha-māyā (pure mãyā ) and Aśuddha-māyā (impure māyā).  The great Siddha Thirumoolar discusses a third form, and elucidates the purpose of māyā in process of incarnation and indeed also the soul’s journey back to liberation.


Swami Ayyappa will share more on the depth of Thirumoolar’s understanding and expression on this topic during Satsang and Meditation by the fire on January 28th.


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