[According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term maya originally referred to the power of a god to make human beings believe in illusion. Another way of describing it is as the cosmic power by which infinite Brahman comes to be manifest as the finite phenomenal world. At the individual level, maya is manifested by one's ignorance of the real nature of self, where the empirical ego is mistaken for that aspect of oneself that is identical with Brahman (Brahman = atman, "That art Thou.")]

Narada’s Story

Once upon a time, a serious devotee of Yoga named Narada, who had proved himself worthy through prodigious acts of selflessness and austerity, was granted a wish by Vishnu. "Show me the magic power of your Maya ," Narada had prayed, and the God replied, "I will. Come with me;" with an ambiguous smile on his beautiful curved lips.

From the pleasant shadow of the sheltering hermit grove, Vishnu conducted Narada across a bare stretch of land which blazed like metal under the merciless glow of a scorching sun. The two were soon very thirsty. At some distance, in the glaring light, they perceived the thatched roofs of a tiny hamlet. Vishnu asked: "Will you go over there and fetch me some water?"

"Certainly, O Lord," the saint replied, and he made off to the distant group of huts. The god relaxed under the shade of a cliff, to await his return.

When Narada reached the hamlet, he knocked at the first door. A beautiful maiden opened to him and the holy man experienced something of which he had never up to that time dreamed: the enchantment of her eyes. They resembled those of his divine Lord and friend. He stood and gazed. He simply forgot what he had come for. The girl, gentle and candid, bade him welcome. Her voice was a golden noose about his neck. As moving in a vision, he entered the door.

The occupants of the house were full of respect for him, yet not the least bit shy. He was honorably received, as a holy man, yet somehow not as a stranger; rather, as an old and venerable acquaintance who had been a long time away. Narada remained with them impressed by the cheerful and noble bearing, and feeling entirely at home. Nobody asked him what he had come for; he seemed to have belonged to the family from time immemorial. And after a certain period, he asked the father for permission to marry the girl, which was no more than everyone in the house had been expecting. He became a member of the family and shared with them the age-old burdens and simple delights of a peasant household.

Twelve years passed; he had three children. When his father-in-law died he became head of the household, inheriting the estate and managing it, tending the cattle and cultivating the fields. The twelfth year, the rainy season was extraordinarily violent; the streams swelled, torrents poured down the hills, and the little village was inundated by a sudden flood. In the night, the straw huts and cattle were carried away and everybody fled.

With one hand supporting his wife, with the other leading two of his children, and bearing the smallest on his shoulder, Narada set forth hastily. Forging a head through the pitch darkness and lashed by the rain, he waded through slippery mud, staggered through whirling waters. The burden was more than he could manage with the current heavily dragging at his legs. Once, when he stumbled, the child slipped from his shoulder and disappeared in the roaring night. With a desperate cry, N~ rada let go the older children to catch at the smallest, but was too late. Meanwhile the flood swiftly carried off the other two, and even before he could realize the disaster, ripped from his side his wife, swept his own feet from under him and flung him headlong in the torrent like a log. Unconscious, Narada was stranded eventually on a little cliff. When he returned to consciousness, he opened his eyes upon a vast sheet of muddy water. He could only weep.

"Child!" He heard a familiar voice, which nearly stopped his heart. "Where is the water you went to fetch for me? I have been waiting more than half an hour."

Narada turned around. Instead of water he beheld the brilliant desert in the midday sun. He found the god standing at his shoulder. The cruel curves of the fascinating mouth, still smiling, part with the gentle question: "Do you comprehend now the secret of my Maya?"

(Zimmer, H. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Joseph Campbell (Ed.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946, pgs 32-4)