Amongst Brahma’s many sons was one Narada. Narada refused to marry. He did not want anything to do with the material world. Like Suka, he preferred the realm of Narayana, when time and space do not exist, where Maya casts no spells. He went a step further; he encouraged Brahma’s other sons to stay celibate like him. He did not see the point of engaging with Prakriti. He did not understand the point of constructing Brahmanda.
Many of Brahma’s sons agreed with Narada. They also refused to marry. This happened several times, until an enraged Brahma cursed Narada, ‘you will stay trapped in the material world until you appreciate the value of Maya.’
Narada went to Vishnu and asked him the meaning of Maya. In response, Vishnu said, ‘i will explain after you quench my thirst. Go fetch me some water.’
Narada went to a river to fetch water. But as he was collecting the water, he saw a beautiful girl. He was so drawn to her that he followed her to her village and asked her father for her hand in marriage. The father agreed and the two got married. Before long, Narada was a father and then grandfather and then great grandfather. Narada felt content. Suddenly one day, it rained. And the rains refused to stop. The river swelled and broke its banks. Water rushed into Narada’s house, and to his horror, swept away his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. He screamed and shouted for help as the water dragged him under. Suddenly he was pulled up and found himself in Vaikuntha (Vishnu’s abode) before Vishnu.
‘Narada,’ said Vishnu, ‘where is my water? I am still thirsty.’ Narada did not understand. Where was his family, his wife’s village, the river?
‘Where does this pain and suffering come from, Narada?’ asked Vishnu with a smile. ‘I thought you had full knowledge of Maya before you set out to fetch water for me.’
Narada bowed his head in realization. He knew Maya but had never experienced Maya. Brahma was encouraging his sons to marry so that they experience Maya. Knowledge of Maya is not experience of Maya. Unless one experiences Maya, one will not be able to empathize with those who are trapped in it.
Said Vishnu, ‘you knew all about measuring scales and subjective realities. Yet you forgot all about them as soon as you experienced the material world – home, family, children, and village. Your understanding of Maya and Brahmanda could have helped you in the tumult of pleasure and pain, but it did not. Such is the spell of Maya. Now that you have experienced Maya, i want you to go and meet people, shake up their measuring scales, challenge their subjective realities, until they realize that the only way out of Maya is seeking answers out of material reality. I want you to provoke them into following the spiritual path.’
In order to help fully appreciate the myth, I am appending a few explanatory passages:
The word Maya has its root in ‘Ma’ which means ‘to measure’. Maya is a measuring scale. Like Prakriti, Maya is an aspect of material reality. But while Prakriti is physical, Maya is mental. Prakriti existed before Brahma (the creator, and one of three presiding deities in Hindu pantheon, the others being Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer), Maya comes after. Prakriti is Brahma’s mother while Maya is daughter.
Brahma needs Maya to survive Prakriti. Brahma observes Parkriti, and tries to make sense of her, through the lens of Maya. Maya is the measuring scale. Brahma is doing the measuring. Prakriti is that which he measures. (Therefore, each one of us is Brahma.) With the help of Maya, Brahma is able to judge Prakriti as good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly....
Unfortunately Maya is not static. She is continuously informed and colored by Brahma’s experiences and expectations. When experience changes, when expectation changes, Maya recalibrates itself ... This confuses and confounds Brahma. It leads to conflicts between his children. One wonders what the perfect truth is. One questions reality. One wonders what the point of life is. This amplifies fear.
Maya often is taken to mean delusion. A world seen through a measuring scale is a delusion, because it is perception, dependent on a measuring scale. It is a delusion that comforts Brahma as well as perplexes him. Without it, Brahma is lost. With it, he has meaning, purpose and direction.
The world of delusion constructed by Brahma with the help of Maya is called Brahmanda or Brahma’s sphere. Brahmanda is not objective reality; it is Brahma’s version of reality, his own very personal construction, his opinion of nature....
Without Maya man would be at the mercy of nature; with Maya, man is able to dominate nature and establish culture. Maya thus elevates man from being an animal. Life is no longer about survival alone; it’s about meaning. The quest for meaning provokes man into action and karma, from the root ‘kri’ (to do). In the quest for meaning, man creates society. Brahma thus becomes creator.
When Vishnu is in deep slumber, he is not aware of Prakriti. That does not mean nature does not exist. It is simply not sensed. This state is described as Yoga-nidra....
When awake, Vishnu observes nature just like Brahma. But, unlike Brahma, he is not intimidated by Prakriti. Vishnu experiences no fear. He does not need a measuring scale to appreciate Prakriti. He sees Prakriti for what she is, without the aid of Maya.... Brahma depends on Maya to survive Prakriti; Vishnu does not. Brahma is thus a slave of Maya while Vishnu is her master. Brahma needs to construct a subjective reality to make sense of existence, while Vishnu has no such need.
For Brahma, Maya is Maha-maya; he is under her spell. For Vishnu, Maya is Yoga-maya; she is under his command. That is why Vishnu is called Mayin, the great deluder.
Vishnu can, if he wishes, choose to engage with Maya. When he does, he takes the form of an avatar. For example, he can become Ram or Krishna. Both Ram and Krishna experience birth and death, like all human beings, but being realised souls, they are not afraid of Maya. Both know they are Vishnu; their identity is not dependent on any measuring scale or subjective reality.
Vishnu thus has a threefold relationship with Maya. As Narayana, he is ignorant of Maya. As Vishnu he is aware of Maya but chooses not be under her spell, and as Vishnu’s Avatars, like Ram and Krishna, he willingly submits to Maya, engages with subjective realities, but is never dependent on her.
In the many tales of mythology, Brahma never makes the journey out of Brahmanda into Vaikuntha (Vishnu’s abode). He convinces himself that his subjective reality is objective reality. He ends up trying to control the world. Rather than looking beyond pleasure and pain, he works towards enhancing pleasure and reducing pain. He gets trapped in his own delusion. The material world stops being a medium, it becomes the destination. Brahma spends all his life securing his own version of reality. He does everything in his power to defend his measuring scale.
Brahma forgets Brahmanda is his creation. He forgets Maya also is his creation. He forgets Prakriti is his mother. Instead he seeks to control reality, dominate her, and make her dance to his whims. But Prakriti cannot be controlled by Brahma. The story goes that Brahma tries to get Shatrupa (she of a hundred beautiful forms) to dance to his whims. But the goddess runs away.
Brahma pursues her, desperate to possess and control her. It is a futile attempt that he refuses to abandon. This Brahma, who chases Prakriti, under the spell of Maya, is the unenlightened man, who seeks control over material reality, who seeks to dominate the world around him, seeks to make it function according to his whims. This is Brahma, the creator of all measuring scales and subjective realities, who is never worshiped (while Vishnu is, so is Shiva).
In his obsession, Brahma sprouts many heads. The many heads of Brahma represent the gradual crumpling of human consciousness as it becomes increasingly contaminated by prejudices and conditioning. Finally, Brahma sprouts the fifth head, his own imaginary understanding of who he is. This is Brahma’s self-image. It makes him demand significance in the world that he has created. Sometimes called the ego, the fifth head of Brahma is destroyed by Shiva.
(Seven Secrets of Vishnu. Devdutt Pattanaik.)