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This is because in sage the following is legal (but probably ill-advised): sin(SR.symbol('sin')). With the _SAGE_VAR_ prefix, this translates into an expression in maxima that roughly captures the same meaning. Without it, you get a maxima expression that means something else.

You can create expressions like sin(maxima('x')), but if you want expressions to go back and forth between maxima and sage, it's better to stick with the prefixes that sage uses.