Since time immemorial, ‘Maya’ has been a source of intrigue. Just what is Maya? Is it an elusive illusion, or is it a mirage, which leads an individual to temptation, only to face reality with a harsh lesson and at times quite harsh. Maya has led to many realisations and understanding of it has generally been one-directional, i.e. from the perspective of a story or the lesson learnt. For want of any other way, here is one more perspective of Maya, which was told to Andre Malraux (a French novelist & art theorist) in Varanasi, by a passerby, who forced Malraux to listen to the story. The incident was recorded in Malraux’s ‘Anti Memoirs’, which goes as follows –

Narada, the itinerant divine sage roaming the three worlds, sowing seeds of discord and inveterate experimenter, goes up to Vishnu and demands that ‘Maya’ be explained to him. Vishnu is silent. Narada is not one to be denied. He insists so persistently that the god has to answer him.

‘Maya cannot be explained, it has to be experienced,’ said Vishnu. ‘If you can’t explain what you create, then I won’t believe in you,’ retorts the never-say-die sage. Quickly deserting his serpent couch for the fate of gods in whom humans do not believe is shrouded in uncertainty–Vishnu beckons him to follow.

Walking together, they reach a desert where Vishnu sits down under a tree and exclaims, ‘I am so tired, Narada! Take this lota (a vessel to carry water) and get me some water from that oasis. When you return I will explain Maya to you.’ Eager to plumb the mystery, Narada speeds off to the oasis and finds a well there beside a hut. He calls out, and a lovely girl opens the door. Looking into her eyes, Narada is reminded of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. She invites him in and disappears indoors. Her parents come out and greet the guest, requesting him to rest and eat after his journey through the burning sands before he returns with the lota of water. Thinking of the lovely girl, Narada agrees. Night falls, and they urge him to leave in the cool morning. Awakening in the morning, Narada looks out and sees the girl bathing beside the well. He forgets about the lota of water. He stays on. The parents offer him their daughter’s hand in marriage. Narada accepts, and settles down here. Children arrive; the parents-in-law die; Narada inherits the property. 12 years go by. Suddenly the floods arrive–floods in the desert! His house is washed away. His wife is swept away. Reaching out to clutch her, he loses hold of his children who disappear in the waters. Narada is submerged in the floods and loses consciousness.
Narada awakens, his head pillowed in someone’s lap. Opening his eyes he gazes into the eyes of Vishnu, seated at the desert’s edge under that same tree, those eyes that remind him of his wife’s. ‘Narada,’ asks Vishnu, ‘where is the lota of water?’ Narada asked, ‘You mean, all that happened to me did not happen to me?’ Vishnu smiled his enigmatic smile.

Does that answer your query of Maya? If it doesn’t, then you know why Maya is elusive!

STORY COLLECTED BY Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya
TEXT SOURCE ‘Anti Memoirs’ by Andre Malraux published in 1967