Brahma Knowledge, by L. D. Barnett, , at sacred-texts.com
§ 16. Māyā.—The word māyā, magic illusion, is commonly used in the later Vedānta to denote the phantom character of the phenomenal world; and in this sense it does not appear in the Upanishads until the Śvetāśvatara (IV. 10). It is not found in the Brahma-sūtra; and hence the question has often been raised whether the idea denoted by it was actually present in the minds of the authors of the older Upanishads.
That phenomena, even to the first principles under which they are cognised (space, time, and causality), are unreal relatively to Absolute Being, is a cardinal doctrine not only of the Upanishads but of all metaphysics. Even the Vedic poets assert a real being of primal unity concealed behind the manifold of experience; and on this is founded the Upanishadic principle that the universe exists only in and by virtue of a World-Idea essentially identical with the individual consciousness. This, however, is still far from the māyā-theory of the later Vedānta. The authors of the older Upanishads were still much influenced by the realism of the Vedas, and it is therefore doubtful whether they could have agreed with the Vedantists who treat the world of experience as absolutely unreal, a mere phantom
conjured up by the Self for its own delusion. As typical of the Upanishadic attitude we may regard the theory of the Five Ātmās (§ 12) and the long passage of the Bṛihad-āraṇyaka (III. vii. 3 f.) where the Self is described in detail as the antaryāmī, or "inward controller," functioning as soul within matter as its body. Their view was in the main somewhat as follows. Phenomena are evolved from the Self, and hold their existence as intelligibilia in fee from the Self; with the knowledge of the Self they become known as phases of it; hence they are, to this extent, and no further, really existent (satya, B.A. I. vi. 3), provisionally true, although it is only ignorance of the Self that regards them as really independent of the Self and manifold. The Upanishads on the whole conceive the empiric soul's ignorance as a negative force, an absence of light; with Śankara and the later Vedānta it is positive, a false light, a constructive illusion. Brahma as cause of phenomena is in the Upanishads a real material, in Śankara's school an unreal material.
The difficulties besetting Śankara when he endeavours to bring logical order into the vague idealism of the Upanishads are very serious. On the one hand he maintains that the whole phenomenal world is unreal (avastu). As a magician (māyāvī) causes a phantom or wraith to issue from his person which has no real existence and by which the magician himself is entirely unaffected,
so Brahma creates from himself a universe which is an utter phantom and nowise modifies his absolute existence. His creative "powers" (which are real only when regarded from the standpoint of his creation, the world of finite subjects and objects) constitute the demiurgic principle of an empiric universe, which is, from its own standpoint, coextensive with him, whereas absolutely speaking it does not exist at all (see commentary on Brahma-sūtra, II. i. 6, 9, etc., and above, § 9). On the other hand, the universe, phantom as it is, nevertheless is a fact of consciousness. Illusion though it be, the illusion is. This predicate of existence is the bond uniting it with its source, the truly existent, Brahma (on II. i. 6). Brahma is absolute thought, the world is false thought; but the subject in both cases is the same, the thinking Self. Thus Māyā denotes the sum of phenomena—or, as more narrowly defined by some later Vedantists, the sum of matter—as illusively conceived by the Self; it is the Ignorance which creates the phantom of a universe and of an individual ego by imposing its figments upon pure Thought (§ 12).