Our teacher sometimes quoted the last lines of the verses of the late Victorian poet, Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Dark as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
When we hear these words, providing we are reasonably comfortable, there is a tendency to sit back in the stall, so to speak, and clap ones hands and cry, “Bravo! Magnificent defiance of death!” But, of course, we don’t take it as real. He has long been dead. And the cynic says, “He’s a puppy, barking bravely in front of a steamroller. Was he the master of his fate?”
When our teacher quoted them these were not to be word clouds; sometimes magnificent and splendid, sometimes dark and grey – they were realities. It is essential that when we hear the holy texts, they should not become beautiful, inspiring poems without an actual reality. This applies in many branches; truth can become merely theory. The great scientist Eddington, as long ago as 1927, wrote a famous book: The Nature of the Physical World, which gave the example of two tables. One is the substantial table on which we rest our papers and arms, and the other:
“My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges, rushing about with great speed. But their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself.”
That is supposed to be the reality of the table – the scientific reality of it. All of the interesting features for us, such as its colour, its hardness, its steadiness and its purpose, are all projections of the human mind through the sense organs, and interpreted by the brain. But scientists themselves cannot always remember that it is really a scientific table. The great philosopher of science, [Bertrand Russell] when it was put to him that consciousness is always present whenever we speak of reality, said,
“Oh no! I can easily imagine the time when earth was simply a mass of blazing rocks and no consciousness whatever.”
He didn’t remember that, on his own theory, blazing rocks are projections of the human mind onto largely empty space, with electrons whirling about. So all that could be there would be masses of configurations of empty spaces, which, if a human consciousness were there, would look like blazing rocks. He did not see that. In other words, although he was a well-known philosopher of science he could not actually remember, when it came to the point, about his own theory. In the same way, we are told, that it [a spiritual truth] must not degenerate into theory which is not in fact taken in by us but which remains a mere theory.
Now, the yoga philosophy is that the universe is a superimposition – an illusory superimposition projected by the Absolute. If it is taken as real, that forms Ignorance which prevents us from seeing the Absolute. To that extent it is an illusion.
Illusions are of two kinds, and it is quite important to remember the distinction between them. One of them has no actual basis and the other has a basis of substratum. For no actual basis, think of Father Christmas. This is a concept, an idea, which we teach to very small children to teach the virtues of generosity and kindness and [to give] a little thrill of excitement. And the reality of Father Christmas is spoken of. He comes down – well, he doesn’t come down the chimney now – there aren’t chimneys – he probably comes down the aerial, but it [the idea] teaches generosity and goodwill, and it has done. My father told me that in World War I the British and German soldiers [who were brought up with the idea that Christmas Day was a time of goodwill] wouldn’t shoot at each other on Christmas Day. But, nevertheless, it is an illusion, and when the children grow up they are told, or they find out for themselves, that there is no Father Christmas. The illusion is imposed; it has a purpose, but then it is withdrawn. This is one kind of illusion. There is no basis – Father Christmas could be short and fat, he could be tall and thin, he could have blue boots. At one time he was thought to have a sledge with reindeer, riding about the clouds. All these things could be put on and taken off at will.
There is another kind of illusion. The classical example is given when you see in a half-light a rope on the ground. Because your lamp is moving as you move, the shadow of the rope moves and seems to be a snake. Now that is an illusion of a snake, which is really only a rope, but it has a substratum. If the rope has a coil in it, then the snake you see has a coil in it, and there is a correspondence – it is not just a free fantasy like Father Christmas.
But it is easy to confuse these two kinds of illusions. One has no substratum, which can be put on [added to] and taken off at one’s will and the other one with a substratum.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Word Clouds and Realities
Recap of experimental verification argument: Vedanta is supported by very carefully reasoned arguments