What is māyā?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March, 2020

On a beautiful day in spring, long, long ago, Vishnu and Narad were walking through the desert. It was an exquisite, fresh morning, but Narad looked worried. Finally he took all his courage together and asked Vishnu, "Lord, could you tell me what māyā is? It has puzzled me for a long time". Vishnu did not immediately answer. They walked on through the barren landscape. Gradually the sun rose, and it became quite hot, so Narad suspected nothing when Vishnu asked, in all innocence, "Narad, could you do me a favour, and get me some water? I know this place, and behind these sand dunes on the right, there is a well, which is known to give particularly sweet, cool water." Narad was always happy to do something for his Lord, so he put a small mat on the side of the road, carefully placed his Veena down, took Vishnu's pitcher in his hands, and ran up the dunes. And yes, just as Vishnu had told, behind the dunes there was a neat, clean well. A few beautiful young maidens were busy lifting water, so he sat down on a piece of wood at a small distance from the well and politely waited till his turn would come. When the last girl pulled up the bucket, Narad got up and asked her if she could spare a bit and pour it in his pitcher. He could not help but notice that she was by far the most beautiful of the lot. In fact, if he was honest to himself, he had to admit that she was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. At her end, she was also quite charmed by this stranger who had so suddenly appeared as if from nowhere at all. A happy banter ensued. She told about the cute little village that lay beneath them in the valley, and Narad was mesmerised by the beauty of her voice.

So when she became silent for a while and shyly asked whether he would like to come with her and meet her parents he was all ready to go. Her parents were rather impressed by the young man their daughter had brought home and exchanged some meaningful glances which Narad happily ignored. They took him round through the village and by the evening it was clear he simply had to stay for the night. From then on, events followed events by their own sweet logic. The happy couple got married, children came soon after and when her parents grew old, he took over as head of the village. The village prospered, he was much loved by everyone and all was well, till suddenly, many, many years later, disaster struck. That year there was more rain than anyone in the village could remember. The village was located on the boards of a river, and that year the water in the river rose to unprecedented levels. New embankments were made, but the water kept on rising till they broke and the entire village was swept away. Our hero did all he could, but the power of the water was too much. His house went; his parents were taken by the stream, so were his children and his wife. Finally he himself was swept from his feet and could just cling to a piece of old wood that came by. After what seemed an eternity of being tossed around by the wild waters, he reached land and lost consciousness.

When he came by, his body and mind felt old and broken. It was a dry and rather hot day. The sun was shining and the well in front of him was just as he had seen it so many years ago. Only the maidens were not there. What he did see was the pitcher. It was filled to the brim with what looked like fresh, cool water, and suddenly he remembered Vishnu. Vishnu! He jumped up, grabbed the pitcher and struggled up the row of dunes to his side. To his utter relief, he saw that Vishnu was still standing on the road below. He ran down, as fast as his old, tired legs could take him. Full of remorse now, he was ready to be burned to ashes by Vishnu's wrath.

But things went somewhat differently. Vishnu took the pitcher, smiled gratefully, and drank a few sips. Narad looked up to him in wonder, and suddenly realised that the pain in his body had disappeared. His youth had come back. Still slightly bewildered, he picked up his Veena and the little mat that were there on the side of the road, exactly as he had left them.

Vishnu and Narad continued their walk as if nothing had happened.