Maya means “that which is not.” It refers to the Supreme Person’s energy of illusion, which makes us think our temporary body, which is a product of the material world, is the same as our eternal, spiritual self, the atma within the body. When we’re under maya‘s influence, the attractive things in this world—wealth, fame, the opposite sex—appear real and desirable to us. We think we should be able to enjoy and control them, as we like. But really, everything here is under the control of time, and none of these temporary things can bring us lasting happiness.

Everything about Krishna, the Supreme Person, is completely spiritual. He always has been and always will be the supreme controller and enjoyer. But when we want to enjoy or control separately from Him—as if we were God ourselves—everything then appears to us as material, non-spiritual, separate from God, and exploitable. What we see then is maya, illusion, because in reality nothing is separate from the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Person, Krishna.

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Maya‘s influence isn’t easy to overcome. We’ve gotten used to seeing this world and ourselves as material. But anyone willing to accept Krishna’s guidance can be immediately freed from Maya’s control. Such freedom from material illusion happens naturally as a result of becoming absorbed in spiritual thought and activities. For example, Srila Prabhupada wrote this to one disciple:

“When [the] Hare Krishna mantra is vibrating on your tongue, and you are hearing attentively, then your consciousness becomes clear, or Krishna conscious, and there is no question of Maya.”

This entire world can be either material or spiritual, depending how we choose to see it. If we see it as Krishna’s energy, and meant to be used in His service, then it can be as good as the spiritual world, and we can be completely happy. But if we see it as our private playground, then the world loses its spiritual quality for us. All we see then is dull matter—which we can never completely enjoy—and we become frustrated and depressed.

(The image is a well-known ambiguous optical illusion entitled, “My Wife and My Mother-In Law.” The person in the picture can be seen either as a young woman or an old woman.)