Maya’s Friend Norm
By Padma Devi Dasi
The Vedic scriptures reveal that Mayadevi, Lord Krishna’s deluding potency, works with certain energies that have the capacity to make material life seem like normal life.
As we go about our everyday activities in the material world, we are continuously confronted with the normality, or normalness, of material existence. In other words, we are constantly bombarded with the notion that material life, with all its mundane rationality, constitutes normal life and that this world is where we belong. As Srila Prabhupada affirms, however, material life, which is devoid of love of Lord Krishna and service to Him, is very abnormal.
Within the material realm of existence, it is Mayadevi, the personification of Krishna’s deluding potency, who convinces the materially embodied spirit souls that material life is normal. Consider the following conversation between Maya, Norm (a fictional character herein invented to represent Maya’s ability to normalize material life), and John (who represents a typical materially conditioned person):
Mayadevi: Hi, John, this is Norm. I told you about him. He’s one of my oldest friends.
John: Hello, Norm. Maya has told me a little about you. You’re a psychologist, is that right?
Norm: Yes … I work with people who have identity problems. I try to help them find themselves, to find their real selves.
John: Oh … that’s nice. Do you use any particular methods in your work?
Norm: Yes … Well, let’s say you were one of my clients. I would get you to think about what makes you feel the most normal. You know—in what circumstances do you feel the most habituated, the most ordinary? When is it that you feel the most comfortable?
John: I guess that would be when I am working at the office … or when I am playing with the kids … stuff like that.
Norm: But at which time do you feel the most normal, more than at any other time?
John: Hmm … I suppose it’s when I think about how I have succeeded in creating a good life for myself and my family, how it’s given me a sense of belonging in this world … a sense of achievement. I think that’s it. It’s also knowing that I have done it all by myself—I didn’t have to count on anyone else to do it.
Norm: Great! Well that’s who you truly are—a great achiever, capable of being successful in this world and independent of others. That’s who you really are, John, and you should be proud of it!
John: Wow, I guess you really know your stuff! I always thought that my true identity lay somewhere deep inside myself, in a place that I could only access by meditation and yoga … you know… a spiritual type of thing.
Norm: Well, John, the truth is that no one has ever found out who they are by doing yoga. It’s simply not the way. You need to find the thing that makes you feel familiar, when you feel the most relaxed and at ease. That’s when you are really in touch with yourself.
John: Yeah … I suppose so …
As a pure devotee of the Supreme Lord, it is Mayadevi’s service to Krishna to deceive materially embodied souls into thinking that their identity is material instead of spiritual and that the material environment is their normal environment. The potency by which she deludes the soul into such thoughts is called avaranatmika shakti, an energy given by Krishna that enables her to cover the individual soul’s original pure consciousness with whatever material desires are manifest within the individual’s heart. Mayadevi’s other potency, called prakshepatmika shakti, enables her to pull or throw the spiritual soul down into the material world, immersing the soul in materialistic life. By the combination of these two potencies, Mayadevi very skillfully dresses up the material energy to delude the materially embodied person into a false sense of what is normal.
Mayadevi’s avaranatmika potency instills the notion “I am comfortable within my current situation; everything is fine with my material life. Why should I change it?” As Srila Prabhupada explains:
This spell of maya is called avaranatmika shakti because it is so strong that the living entity is satisfied in any abominable condition. Even if he is born as a worm living within the intestine or abdomen in the midst of urine and stool, still he is satisfied.
In the Third Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.30.4) Lord Kapila states that “the living entity, in whatever species of life he appears, finds a particular type of satisfaction in that species, and he is never averse to being situated in such a condition.” Overcome by such an illusion, materially embodied beings cannot understand whether they are happy or distressed, fortunate or unfortunate, and so on. Nor can they understand that Mayadevi’s avaranatmika potency has debilitated their capacity to distinguish between what is false and what is normal. Thus the materially embodied person consequently endures Mayadevi’s façade of ordinariness, rationality, and familiarity—i.e., normality.
Primarily the avaranatmika potency infiltrates the materially embodied soul’s consciousness by means of some form of material identity. After collecting countless impressions from the material world, the materially embodied person’s mind and intellect offer a type of “false identity package deal” to the pure spirit soul, based on these impressions. The inherently pure soul must thereby choose whether to accept or reject what is being offered. If the soul accepts the deal, Mayadevi’s avaranatmika potency makes the person’s choice seem like the normal, or natural, thing to do. Mayadevi thereby smoothes the soul’s path towards a life founded on a particular material identity. For souls who reject the deal, Mayadevi withdraws her potencies and allows them to progress toward realization of their spiritual identity, their actual identity. Such is the service of Mayadevi.
The Spell of Diversion
Through her prakshepatmika potency, defined as her “spell of diversion” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 20.6) Mayadevi throws spiritual souls down into material existence, compelling them to adopt reasons for remaining entangled in material life. By convincing them that spiritual life is for fools, the prakshepatmika energy propels spiritual souls away from religious activities through aversive arguments. The prakshepatmika energy thereby works as an antithesis to spiritual life by anti-normalizing or making unattractive the path of spiritual self-realization. The confused spiritual soul thereby learns to think of spiritual life as abnormal and unnatural, or perhaps as a life that befits fanatical, extremist, emotionally deprived, or less intelligent persons. At the very least, the materially embodied person who succumbs to the anti-normalizing influences of Mayadevi’s prakshepatmika potency is overcome with the thought that “spiritual life just isn’t for me”: Srila Prabhupada writes,
When somebody is trying to come to Krishna consciousness, the prakshepatmika-shakti will dictate, “Why are you going to the Krishna consciousness society? There are so many restrictions there, so many rules and regulations. Better give it up.” And the conditioned soul thinks, “Why, yes, this Krishna consciousness is nonsense. Let me give it up.”
(Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, Chapter 10)
Our conceptions of what constitutes our everyday mundane experiences are often distorted, perverted, and exaggerated due to the depth of our conditioning by the material energy. We perceive that we are experiencing the results of arrangements we ourselves have made for our own material prosperity, when in actuality we are experiencing reactions to our past sinful activities. Within this predicament we do our best to normalize our material indulgences and their subsequent consequences, according to the demands of our material senses. Such attempts by materially embodied souls to normalize their own suffering within the material world are also symptoms of contamination by Mayadevi’s avaranatmika and prakshepatmika potencies. Pitifully, these two potencies end up dictating our own arguments in favor of material life.
We would be wise to not underestimate the sophistication and strength of Mayadevi’s normalizing and anti-normalizing capacities, her ability to confuse us about what is normal and abnormal for the eternally spiritual person. She has the capacity to bewilder and thereby encumber both the beginner and those more advanced on the spiritual path. Even though we may have been devotees for many years, we still risk being exposed to these potencies and overcome by them. They often gain ground in undetected and unanticipated ways. “Maya, the energy underlying all material existence, is more subtle than ordinary phenomena.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 10.85.44, Purport). Here’s an example of the subtle effects of Maya’s potencies: “Maya is so subtle that even if one is able to avoid hearing about sex, money, and atheists, and even if one joins a society of devotees, one may still become a victim of pride and hypocrisy.” (Narada-bhakti-sutra, 4.64, Purport). The qualities of pride and hypocrisy are certainly ominous enough to transform a spiritualist into a materialist.
In essence, the avaranatmika and prakshepatmika potencies challenge our experience of normality. While we may be able to understand the philosophy of what constitutes normal (or spiritual) life and abnormal (or material) life, our everyday experiences may very well leave us confused. As people dedicated to advancing spiritually, we want to feel comfortable yet not lax; we want to be dedicated yet not fanatical; we want to be surrendered to spiritual authority yet still maintain some independence; and we want to be assured that we are on the right path yet also go our own way. Within such circumstances we do our best to identify the fine lines that separate our spiritual consciousness from our material consciousness. That is, we do our best to perceive what constitutes our normal consciousness and what constitutes our abnormal consciousness. Reliance on relevant knowledge from the Vedic scriptures can enhance our perceptions of such differences.
According to Srila Prabhupada, normal life means to love Krishna. It means to experience the love that Krishna has for us as parts of Him. It means to be attracted to Krishna’s pastimes and to desire to please Krishna. When we are influenced by Krishna’s internal spiritual energy rather than by His external material energy, then we can be assured that we are experiencing normal life—spiritual life—which is synonymous with spiritual consciousness. By cultivating such an understanding of what is normal, what is usual, what is intrinsic to our spiritual selves, we can relinquish all of our cumbersome abnormalities and return to our inherent, peaceful existence of loving Krishna. As Srila Prabhupada said:
We being part and parcel of Krishna, our natural tendency is to serve Krishna. Natural tendency. It is not artificial. When you forget Krishna, that is artificial. So our normal life means to love Krishna, to serve Krishna. That is our normal life. Without serving Krishna our life is abnormal, madman’s life.
(Conversation, 1975, Nairobi)