“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Maya literally means “that which is not.” In the twilight f.e. one may easily mistake a rope for a snake. In so doing, we feel fear. Hence fear and other emotions may often be based on illusion, an incorrect perception of reality.
Under the influence of the three gunas, the soul is (1) misled by matter, and (2) subsequently entangled and entrapped. This tendency is termed maya (illusion).
Under maya’s influence, the atman, (the soul) mistakenly identifies with the body. He accepts such thoughts as “I am white and I am a man,” or “This is my house, my country, and my religion.” Thus the illusioned soul identifies with the temporary body and everything connected to it, such as race, gender, family, nation, bank balance, and sectarian religion. Under this sense of false-ego (false-identity) the soul aspires to control and enjoy matter. However, in so doing he continuously serves lust, greed, and anger. In frustration he often redoubles his efforts and, compounding mistake upon mistake, only falls deeper into illusion.
In ignorance (tamas), he is fully convinced that right is wrong and wrong is right. In passion he is unsure, hesitant, sometimes enjoying and at others times repenting. Only in goodness does the soul begin to develop wisdom – to see things in the real light. Thus enlightenment means moving away from tamas towards sattva. By so doing, the soul gradually escapes the clutches of maya and moves towards liberation.