A feature of the Gita commentary is that the world illusion is called Maya and it is projected by the Lord and that it is beautiful, although it is a source of suffering to those who misunderstand it. Again and again in Gita in chapters 7, 9 and 10, Maya is shown as most beautiful. The Lord says ‘I am the glory in the glorious things. I am the beauty in the beautiful things. I am morality among the successful. I am the austerity amongst the ascetics. I am justice among the kings. I am the light, the moon and the sun. I am the pleasant fragrance of earth after the rain. It is most beautiful, and this is a feature of the presentation by our teacher . Maya , he said, and he quoted the Gita verse, ‘this Maya is divine, it is divine.’ Those who misunderstand the illusion can suffer from it but the illusion, the Maya, is a conscious projection by the Lord and it is in itself beautiful, but if it is misunderstood as absolutely constricting and real then it can be a source of suffering.
There are two presentations in the Vedanta, one is that the world illusion is something it is an unfortunate accident such as when we are walking along in a dim light and we see a rope and we believe that it is a snake and we get a shock. You get a worse shock if you have lived in India and you open a cupboard and a belt which has been rolled up and has come partially unrolled and has been leaning against the door and when you open the door this thing shoots out. Now then two people in the presence of an accident like that, one has lived in India and the one who has not does not react at all, he just picks up the belt and puts it back, but the one who lives in India, he jumps! It’s a snake, they do hide in cupboards and they do come out.
Well we can think of the world illusion as something like that, something as an unfortunate accident which can lead to suffering and the sooner it has got rid of the better, the other is the presentation of the illusion as Maya, as a presentation by the Lord, which is meant for divine expression but if misunderstood it can be a source of suffering. What would be the nature of this favourable Maya? Well our teacher often gave the example of a conscious illusion, an illusion consciously set up, and he gave the example of a play. If we take the play as absolutely real then a scene like in Lear when Gloucester’s eyes are put out in front of us on the stage, it is appalling. If we saw that happening in real life we might not recover from the shock of it for many years. There are people who have seen things like this and they don’t recover, sometimes they are haunted it by it but when we see it on the stage it is partially accepted but it is not ultimately accepted and so we pay our money to go and see the play, King Lear, although we know it will have this terrible scene in it but by the genius of Shakespeare the whole picture is made something beautiful and we can see this illusion on illusion.
In Shakespeare’s time women were not allowed on the stage so all the parts like Juliet were played by boys, they were rehearsed and their voices were not yet broken, but in some of Shakespeare’s comedies especially there is a tendency for the girls to disguise themselves as boys, like Viola, for instance, in Twelfth Night, she disguises herself as a boy. So there we have a triple illusion, first of all we have some people on the stage pretending to represent, and convincingly representing, a different age and time and place, then we have a boy pretending to be a girl, and then that girl character, pretends to be a boy in the play, of course that fourth illusion is very convincing because it is actually a boy, it’s a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy. Well these illusions are known to be illusions and yet they are accepted partially, they are a source of joy and in the Gita we can see these hints: a typical verse is ‘renouncing all actions by the mind alone’, self control. The yogi sits happily in the ‘city of nine gates’, that’s the body sits happily witnessing the world. This is the first stage of enlightenment where the independent pure self is seen in the body. It is experienced first in the body later on it will be experienced as universal but at first it is experienced in the ‘city of nine gates’ and it is experienced as happiness not as suffering.
© Trevor Leggett
Part 1: Beyond the tangle of words