Who am I? I am the supreme consciousness that perceives everything within and around me, and is aware of its own presence too. The Master Sri Adisankaracharya helps the student ascertain first, the nature of his own self and moves on to what is seen around—the universe.
He explains the 24 elemental factors that constitute this universe. There are the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space; then there are five organs of perception—the hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching. There are the five organs of action—speaking, grasping, walking, excretion and reproduction. There are the five functions of vital movement of air within the form of prana (perception), apana (expulsion), vyana (circulation), samana (digestion) and udana (the upward thrust).
The remaining four factors are the mind which functions through the sense organs, grasping information from outside the body, the intellect which propels thoughts, words and actions from within the body, the memory bank or chittha and the notion of I, called ahamkara.
Beyond these 24 elements, there is a factor called maya and it has three qualities of sattva (existence and knowledge), rajas (dynamism and movement) and tamas (inertia). Maya which is a force in action is dependent on the ultimate truth of existence called brahman. Brahman is something big, the biggest in fact. We say a big stone, a big hill, a big mountain, a big cloud, a big cyclone, a big river, a big ocean, a big forest, a big personality. In the case of brahman, big is the word. There is no object to qualify it.
Maya is dependent on that big truth. Maya is a Sanskrit word to indicate that which is not, but appears to exist. Ya ma sa maya—She who is not is maya.
Even though only apparent in existence, the two active powers of maya are veiling (avarana) and projection (vikshepa). For instance, the truth of emptiness of space is veiled and a sky is projected. The reality of colourlessness of sky is veiled and a blue colour is projected. The truth of heat in the desert is veiled and water is projected in a mirage.
When that big brahman appears to function along with the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas of maya, it is called Ishwara. Brahman alone existed. The five elements have emerged out of it. To make a thing, there needs to be matter and the one who makes it. In the case of this universe, the maker and the matter are one and the same. This is behind the expression of the illusory nature of the world by Vedanta.