One possible construction of māyā from the Sanskrit roots is mā (not) yā (that); in other words, what seems-to-be to our limited perception and cognition is not what-is. Other meanings can be constructed from mā (creation, effect), may- (intoxicate, confuse), and māy- (hide, absence). In Myth and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (edited by Joseph Campbell), Heinrich Zimmer suggests that the noun māyā is related etymologically to “measure” (a specific quantity or point of reference); māyā can also mean diplomatic cunning or a political hoax. Zimmer writes that māyā sometimes means trick, fraud, sorcery, or witchcraft. Swamiji says there are passages where māyā means something like magic, or the divine power of manifestation and exhibition of forms.
Swamiji teaches that we do not know Reality as-it-is because we talk in vain and run after desires and sensual pleasures. In this context, Māyā means ignorance that veils the Truth. A similar concept is present in Western philosophy and elucidated in the ἄγραφα δόγματα (ágrapha dogmata – unwritten doctrine) of the esoteric tradition. The Greek philosopher Parminedes proposes there are two paths: the Way of Truth and the Way of Appearances. Anaxagoras suggests that reason (νοῦς – nous) makes distinctions from the primordial unity, similar to the buddhi in the Sankhya school of thought. The words εἶδος (eidos – visible form) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root weid (see). Related terms μορφή (morphē – shape) and φαινόμενα (phainomena – appearances) come from φαίνω (phainō – shine). The Greek concept of form is linked to words related to vision, sight, and appearance.
Plato gives an example of the problem of Truth and Appearances in the Allegory of the Cave: since childhood, a group of people has been chained inside a cave facing a wall. They cannot turn to see the fire behind them, nor the light at the entrance of the cave; instead, they stare at shadows on the wall and hear echoes of passing voices and assume this is real. One of them is freed and as he moves toward the light, he is temporarily blinded; soon, his eyes adjust to the sun, and he slowly sees the world. He realizes the error of taking the shadows on the wall of the cave for real and returns to share his discovery; at first, he cannot see in the dark. Those who are accustomed to the darkness ridicule him, especially when he tries to convince them to journey upward into the light; fearing loss of their dim sight in a worthless ascent from the cave, they kill him.