Thoughtful men and women, surveying the world of things and events extended about them in space and stretching from the partly known past into the unknown future, the world of which they themselves are part, must at some time or other ask themselves what it all really is. This is indeed the Riddle of the Universe, the fundamental question of the wise and the wondering enquiry of the child : how does Existence happen, how does it work, and what are we doing in it?
Philosophic schools throughout the ages have formulated their theories of the how, why and wherefore of Existence. We are here concerned only with the presentation of Reality given in the ancient scriptures of Vedanta, notably the Bhagavad Gita, and elaborated with great subtlety and conviction by the great Shankara. This has stood the test of time and is as valid and satisfying today as in the ancient world ; ultimately it by no means conflicts with the current views of modern Science, though to attempt a reconciling of Vedantic with Scientific doctrine would go beyond the scope of this article.
Two apparently separate concepts are involved: Brahman, the supreme Reality and Maya the cosmic illusion (In the last analysis, however, they are seen to be one, not two, as Maya is not really real).
Brahman is the One Reality underlying all appearances and in Its creative aspect is known as Ishwara, the Lord Himself. It may here be noted that a sincere atheist need not find it impossible to accept these ideas and concepts* though he would talk of the Absolute rather than of Brahman, and Ishwara would be to him the active principle of the Absolute.
Maya is the Shakti or Power of Ishwara, and it veils absolute Reality from our limited minds. We therefore do not know Brahman, and Reality appears to us in an infinitude of distorted forms. Maya makes the One appear many and the Absolute appear relative to our deluded senses and intellect, and so we see what we see—the world, the universe in fact as we know it; but our knowing is based on illusion, and the illusion is as it were built into our minds, so that we never can shake it off except by the special methods and disciplines of Yoga. Brahman however is in no wise affected by Maya,—much as the cobra is not affected by the poison which it secretes ; Maya, which inheres in Brahman, the eternal unmoving ground of all, has no power over Brahman and thus has no control over Ishwara, the creative aspect of Brahman. Ishwara is therefore known as the Lord of Maya. But He remains unknown to us in our unenlightened state, and all we know or see are the vast, complex and never-ending illusions of Maya.
This is clearly stated in the Gita (VII, 25) where through the mouth of Krishna, his incarnation, the Lord says :
“I am not manifest to all, veiled as I am by My Maya, . . . This deluded world knows not Me, unborn and imperishable ”.
“This deluded world!” How, we may ask, do we come to be deluded, and what keeps us so ? It is Avidya, the veiling power which masks Reality from us and which appertains to each individual or Jiva, just as Maya appertains to Ishwara. Maya is in fact applicable to the whole, while Avidya could be defined as the individual’s share of the Universe-spreading Maya, save that Maya is creative whereas Avidya veils and distorts the created order of things so that we misinterpret it, and in the misinterpreting we go sadly astray and involve ourselves in all kinds of suffering. There is no aspect of Existence which we do not misinterpret, whether it be the attributes of matter such as motion or force which form the study of the physicist, or the behaviour of human beings. Our understanding of all this is wrong, because we do not recognise the underlying Reality. It is as if we were blundering about in a dark room; we bruise ourselves on the furniture because we have no light. The whole of human history is thus seen as a long series of such blunderings, both individual and collective, with the consequent sufferings which, as we know to our cost, have characterised human life at all times.
At first sight this may seem an interesting theory but possibly not easy to apply to everyday life. Accordingly the traditional teaching of Yoga gives a classic illustration, easy to carry in the mind and fitting the idea of Maya very closely. Existence, we are told, is like a rope mistaken for a snake (an easy mistake to make in a dim light, particularly in India where fear of snakes is part of the mental background of everyone). It is actually a rope but we mistake it for a snake, experiencing fear and repulsion in consequence and perhaps taking evading or offensive action. These emotions and this action are quite groundless, but are held to be typical of human actions in the world as we know it. To one who knows the rope for what it is—to a knower, that is—or to one with better sight than ours, who can see that the rope is in fact only a rope—to a seer, that is—we must appear pathetic or ridiculous as we shrink in groundless terror from the imaginary snake.
The knower or seer will in fact think us a little queer, unless he knows or sees us for what we really are as clearly as he does the rope ; then he will comprehend our trouble and perhaps out of his compassion he will instruct us in the true nature of the thing we have so seriously miscomprehended. Such indeed is the role of the Guru or traditional Teacher, whose enlightened and compassionate aid is essential if we are to escape from the nightmare of misapprehension and false knowledge in which we are locked by our ignorance of Truth, our Avidya. He knows, and can impart to us, the Truth, and thus guide us to Liberation.
But let us consider this snake-in-the-rope more deeply ; it is not quite the simple mistake it appears to be. The illusion has two parts. We cannot see the rope at all—that is the first part, and is due to the veiling power of Avidya, called Avarana. Avarana hides Reality from us. As if that were not bad enough, we actually see something different, something which is not real-—a snake. That is the second part of the illusion, and is effected by Vikshepa, the projecting power of Avidya. Thus Avidya (literally “ not-vision ”) is not merely negative ignorance or lack of knowledge (through its Avarana) but also an actual positive provider of wrong knowledge (through its Vikshepa).
The mechanism of Maya is completed by the ever-present phenomenon of Vivarta, or super-imposition, which enables the illusory snake to become as it were plastered over the real rope, effectively masking it from our perceptions.
There is no Santa Claus. The old, white-whiskered gentleman in the red cloak is really Father, with all the cares of the family on his shoulders and business worries at the back of his mind ; but the legend of Christmas has built up such Avidya in the children’s minds that they are prevented from recognising him by their Avarana, and they project in his place by their Vikshepa a totally different person’—a benevolent Saint distributing gifts, whose personality and attributes are super-imposed on the real man by their Vivarta.
There are no Motion Pictures. The so-called Movies consist of a succession of “ still ” photographs flashed on the screen, each one differing slightly from the preceeding in the series. The collective Avidya of cinema audiences, originating in the imperfections of the human eye, prevents them from seeing what is really happening. Their Avarana veils the “ stills ” from them, and instead their Vikshepa projects the quality of movement of the screen, a quality which really “ isn’t there consequently a Vivarta takes place due to the way our minds function, and “ live ” characters and events are superimposed on the series of still pictures which in reality do not possess the quality of life that we in fact see.
These simple illustrations are imperfect, and are intended only as a guide to the way in which Maya works ; they are not the same as Maya, which is much more mysterious. In particular these illustrations fail in respect of the underlying substratum—the fond parent masquerading as Santa Claus, and the blank screen intercepting the light-rays from the projectors. The underlying substratum on which Maya produces its endless illusions is no less than Brahman, eternal, all-pervading, Bliss itself, beyond the reach of our finite minds.
It will be apparent from the foregoing that there is a dream-like quality about Maya. (Do we not say, when we look back on our own past : “ Gone like a dream ”?).
This conception is developed in great detail in the Gaudapada Karikas on the Mandukya Upanishad, and is also to be found in Panchadasi (XIII, 86-90). It is certain that all the characters, objects and supporting scenery in any dream are constructed out of the mind-stuff of the dreamer and from nothing but that. Every person in the dreamer’s dream is himself ; who else could they be ? Attention, however, is usually focused on one character whose identity the, dreaming mind believes to be exclusively its own. This is the one who experiences fear when the dream tiger rushes towards him, not realising that this tiger, no less than all the rest of the dream-drama, is also the dreamer himself. So long as he takes it seriously as real, so long he remains locked in the dream, which may be pleasant or terrible.
He may have the inestimable good fortune to meet, in the dream, a strange and benevolent character who whispers: “ You’re asleep, you are really the dreamer himself, indeed That thou art!”. If he accepts this and realises it to be the Truth, then he ceases to care about the tiger in the dream. All fear, anxiety and distress leave him, and he can say to the tiger “Nice pussy, have another bite!” In short, he can wake up, to find that he is not a tiger’s dinner, but the one who has been safe in bed all the time. All the time ! It has indeed been so all the time the dream was enacting itself, but the tormented dreamer has not realised it.
The dream analogy is a close one, though our conscious waking life is not quite the same thing as a dream. Maya, however, does impart a dream-like quality to Existence, and the process of Yoga is the application of techniques for waking up and leaving the dream forever. It may be asked, how is it that in “ real ” life we do not find people behaving like the character in the dream who could disregard the charging tiger ? Well, in point of fact we do. There have been such men. They are the great souls who have realised the Truth about Maya, who have returned to their true nature, and have realised themselves to be one with the underlying Reality,—which in fact they always had been. Knowing the unsubstantial dreamlike make-up of Maya they were able to transcend it and become free from all fear, anxiety and distress, just as the character did in the dream. Their immortal examples remain with us always. A1 Hallaj, the great Sufi mystic, danced on his mutilated stumps at the scaffold ; he danced for joy. Jesus of Nazareth invoked forgiveness on his murderers as he agonised on the cross. A century later, Rabbi Akiba, the saintly
Jewish sage, smiled while the Romans tortured him to death, and in a cheerful and confident voice recited the Shemah, a prayer proclaiming the Unity of God.
These and other beings of like spiritual stature knew the Truth about Existence ; they were Gnanis—knowers. They had awakened from the long dream of Maya in which we are still in thrall.