In the view of Sankaradeva, the ‘goddess’ or devi is definitely a personification of maya and should not be worshiped. The term maya is used synonymously with prakrti or material nature because it is the job of material nature to conceal and obscure God and to project the unreal (a-vastu)—lifeless (jada) matter—as real (vastu). This is given in the Bhagavata, 2nd Canto. Logically, therefore, if our objective is to approach God, reclaiming our eternal status as eternal, conscious, joyous personalities in His eternal service, instead of lapsing into death (mrtyu), dissolution and mutation (vikara), then we have to root our intellect in God, not in maya.
In English, maya (literally meaning ‘not-that’ or ‘illusion’ in Sanskrit) is often found translated as nescience, descending from the Latin nescientia and essentially meaning ‘absence of knowledge’ or, more plainly, ‘ignorance’. This translation is very apt because it captures the stellar role of prakrti (mentioned above) in plunging the mind of the embodied being (jiva) into ignorance (avidya).
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the worship of maya should have become so widely prevalent in our traditions in the form of pujas (of Durga, etc.). One cannot but help feeling that man is now well and truly in the clutches of maya! The prolonged absence of spiritual reformers in our society, of the mettle of Sankaradeva, coupled with the spiritual illiteracy of the masses has resulted in such a situation. How many persons could possibly understand the purport of the scriptures without the guiding touch of a genuine Guru who could explain to the laity in easy to understand terms the difference between prakrti, purusa and parama purusa? Make no mistake, such a clear demarcation of the entities (tattvas) is the highest of all scientific enquiries.
When the goddess-follower (sakta) Madhava entered into disputation with Sankaradeva over the question of Durga worship, the reply of Sankaradeva would provoke the thought of all intelligent—rational—people:
“Mahamaya Devi, supreme goddess,
worshiped by the entire creation.
Prakriti’s amsa (part, manifestation) is Durga gosani - worshiped by one and all.
Offering of bali (sacrifice)
in grihastha dharma (householder’s life) to such a goddess,
for what reason you term as fault?”
Sankaradeva replied, “Madhava, Listen!
I tell you the fact, primeval.
Even prakriti (material nature) is God’s creation,
know this as Truth, Essential.
Anadi (Beginningless), Ananta (Infinite), Nitya (Everlasting), Niranjana (Unstained) and Sanatana (Eternal) is Lord Hari.
Hundreds of crores of times, He materializes and dissolves such a prakriti.”
[See the full debate here along with translation]
One of the greatest contributions of Sankaradeva in the field of spiritual reform was to awaken the masses from the stupor of maya worship. Now, whether people follow his exhortation or not is entirely upon the people. Sankaradeva never forces anybody.
Matter or prakrti is itself a lifeless entity. It is the Supreme Purusa Who actuates prakrti or material nature and infuses life, as it were, into ‘her’ to initiate the process of evolution or material creation. This is given in the Bhagavata, 3rd Canto. Maya or prakrti is only a tool in the hands of Parama Purusa. In this way, the only aim of prakrti is to serve the Lord’s purpose. In the puranic representations, Laksmi is always seen serving the Feet of Visnu.
The poet-seers personified nature and the material agents present within it. By portraying the material agents as personalities, the poet-seer is able to demonstrate the superiority, nay the supreme status, of Parama Purusa in relation to these entities. By putting prayers, hymns and eulogies to the Supreme Lord into the ‘mouths’ of these ‘personalities’, the poet-seer utilizes the benefits afforded by such a personification to the hilt.
The puranas are the solidification of some of the abstract and ineffable ideas of the vedanta for the easy grasp of the lay populace. They represent the continuation of the same thought. There are the tales of different material agents told in these texts but Parama Purusa is never lost sight of. Each of these personalities has also clear and defined roles and their essential characteristics—whether they are conscious or unconscious entities—are given. It would be preposterous to assume that the inherent qualities which govern these material entities could be so attributed to God, the supreme Atman, as to identify Him with these ‘personalities’—forces, agents, energies—of material nature. Such an equation on the philosophical field would lead to suicide in the spiritual-theological field. Without knowing Paramatma in the right perspective, liberation is never obtained.
Thus, the puranas or, rather, their symbols and personalities, have themselves to be understood well if we are to view ourselves and the world around us in the poet-seers’ transcendent vision. Failing to do that would surely be not only the most glaring example of an exercise in misinterpretation but also a cause of great pain and grief for the poet-seers themselves.
মায়া আদি কৰি যত সমস্তে জগতে জড়
কৃষ্ণেসে চৈতন্য আত্মা শুদ্ধ |
চৈতন্য কৃষ্ণক এড়ি জড়ক ভজিয়া মৰে
কিনো লোক অধম মুগুধ ||৪৭
Whatever there may be, māyā and the rest all the world are gross.
Only Krsna is the Spirit, the Pure Consciousness.
How bewitched and deluded are the people who leave aside Krsna the Consciousness
And die worshipping the gross.