Illusions and realities

Our teacher sometimes quoted the last lines of the verses of the late Victorian poet, Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may 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, and 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 fate!’ But of course we don’t take it as real. When we are uncomfortable or cynical, we say: ‘He’s just a puppy, barking bravely in front of a steamroller. He is long since dead – was he the master of his fate?’

Our teacher said that these were not to be thought of as word clouds; sometimes magnificent and splendid, and at other times dark and grey – they stood for realities.  It is essential that when we hear the holy texts, they should not become beautiful, inspiring poems without an actual reality. This can apply in many fields, where truth can become mere theory.  The great scientist Eddington, as long ago as 1927, wrote a famous book: ‘Nature of the Physical World’, which gave the example of two tables. One is the substantial table on which I rest my arms and papers, and the other:

‘My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges, rushing about with great speed. But the bulk of them, combined, 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.  The interesting features are its colour, its hardness, its steadiness and its purpose; these are all projections of the human mind sensed by all of us, and interpreted by the mind. But scientists themselves cannot always remember that it is really a scientific table. The scientific philosopher, Bertrand Russell, wrote: ‘I can easily imagine the time when earth was a mass of blazing rocks and no consciousness whatever.’ He didn’t remember that, in his own theory, blazing rocks are projections of the human mind on to largely empty spaces, with electrons whirling about in them. There would only have been masses of configurations of empty spaces, which, to human consciousness (if it had been there), would have looked like blazing rocks. He did not see that, when he said ‘blazing rocks’, he was presupposing consciousness. Though a great philosopher, he did not remember his own scientific conclusions.

Now the yoga philosophy is that the universe is a superimposition – an illusory superimposition projected by the Absolute. If it is taken as real, it is called Ignorance (avidya), and prevents us from seeing the Absolute clearly. To that extent it is an illusion.

Illusions are of two kinds, and it is important to remember the distinction between them.  One of them has a factual basis and the other has none.  For the illusion with no factual basis, think of Father Christmas. This is a concept, an idea, which we present to children in order to teach the virtues of generosity and kindness; and it also contains some thrills and excitement at the reality of Father Christmas. These days, of course, he doesn’t often come down the chimney (perhaps because they’re mostly blocked off!), but the idea still teaches generosity and goodwill, as it did in the past; my father told me that, in World War 1, the British and German soldiers wouldn’t shoot at each other on Christmas day.

Nevertheless it is an illusion, and when the children grow up they are told that there is no Father Christmas. The illusion is imposed, though it has a purpose, and this is one kind of illusion where there is no factual basis; Father Christmas could be short and fat, or tall and thin, or have blue boots. At one time he was given a sledge with reindeer and was said to drive above the clouds.  All these things could be added and taken off at will – the illusion has no basis in fact.

There is another kind of illusion. The classical example given is when you see a moving snake on the ground, which turns out to have been just a rope. It seems to move because the lamp you are carrying moves, and so the shadow of the rope changes. 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, and so can be added to at will, and the other one has a basis in fact.  Now one of the methods of teaching S’ankara is superimposition – putting things which are false, imaginary and fanciful onto the Absolute, and then removing them at will. As an example of this, here is a quote from a very reputable text book on Advaita and Vedanta:

‘We superimpose qualities and relations such as omniscience, omnipotence, causality etc. on the Absolute as this helps us to understand it.  To start with, this is the stage of superimposition.  On closer examination we find that the Absolute, which is super-sensuous, is free from qualities and relations, and so we negate the qualities and relations. This is the stage of negation.’

Let us change the level. P.G.Wodehouse used to write comic stories about the perfect manservant, Jeeves, who was much more educated and far more intelligent than his master, the amiable chump Bertie. On one occasion they are talking, and Bertie says: ‘Jeeves, as that chappie said: a man is a man you know, in spite of everything.’ Jeeves coughs, and Bertie looks up, saying: ‘Well what is it Jeeves?’  Jeeves replies: ‘It is the poet Burns, sir.’ ‘Expunge the poet Burns, Jeeves, from the tablet of your mind, Jeeves’. And Jeeves answers: ‘Very good, sir.’

In a little bit the same way, the Advaita theorist is telling us to negate the whole superimposition of the world, all its pain, all its tensions -just to forget it. But it doesn’t happen.  Jeeves doesn’t forget the poet Burns, though he says: ‘Very good, sir.’ We can easily get into the idea of mere theory, as though the realisation of the Absolute consisted in superimposing concepts, and then taking them off again at will. But it is not so; the theories may be propounded, but they cannot actually be lived through, even though the mind says: ‘Very good, sir.’

Advaita is supported by very careful, reasoned arguments and fine analysis of states of consciousness, to which full assent may be given.  Intellectually it is proved, and yet it cannot be taken in.  Well if it is proved, and we know and accepted this, how is it that it is not taken in? I’ll give an example:

A newly rich businessman wanted to show off his new house, so he invited some fifty guests, with the occasion being his sister’s return from abroad. She had married an astronomer, and he was going to meet some of her friends.  In the course of conversation, it turned out that this astronomer was also interested in astrology. He said: ‘I think there is something there, though it is full of superstitions of course.’  The host said: ‘How can you call yourself a scientist if you study astrology? It never makes exact predictions at all.’  The astronomer/astrologer got a bit nettled and said: ‘Well, it is true that astrology usually deals only in tendencies, which are difficult to confirm, but there are occasions where it is possible to make an exact prediction.’ The host sneered, and said: ‘Oh yes, and I suppose, unfortunately, that this is not one of those occasions.’  The astronomer replied: ‘Well, as matter a fact, it is.  In astrology, when people are born on the same birthday, it is called a birthday bond, and I sense that there is one here.  As you are aware, I don’t know anyone here or who they are, but I know that there are two people here who have a birthday bond.  What do you think the likelihood of this happening by chance?’  The host said: ‘Well, there are 365 days in a year, and about 50 people here…. The odds are about 1 in 7.’ The astronomer said: ‘Well I will make a definite prediction that it is so.’

The host was delighted. He said: ‘We’ll test it now, and when you’re shown to be wrong, no doubt you’ll dream up some excuse for it’. He put two chairs in the middle of the room, and got the guests to file through the chairs. As they filed between the chairs, they called out their birthdays, and when the eleventh person had gone through and said: ‘September 3rd‘, another person shouted: ‘I am also September 3rd‘. The host said: ‘That is just a fluke,’ and the astronomer/astrologer said: ‘It is not just a fluke. I predicted it, didn’t I?’ And the host said: ‘Well, it’s a fluke that you predicted a fluke,’ so the other man replied: ‘Do you remember what you said about dreaming up excuses?’

There was also a mathematician at the party, and later on he said privately to the astronomer: ‘You were on to a very good thing there. What you predicted was almost certain to happen.’

Let’s take a look at this. Visualise a calendar. The white squares are the days of the year: 365, and these little black dots are the 50 people.  If at random these dots are scattered about by a blind person, what is the likelihood that two of them will fall in the same box?  It seems pretty small. If they were spread out evenly, each dot would have seven days, seven boxes, to go into, and by the law of averages they ought to be spread out fairly evenly. But to say that it is certain that two of them will land in the same box seems very unlikely. Yet there is mathematical proof that it is so. We can go back to our school mathematics, and with labour, and perhaps the help of a mathematician, understand the proof that it must be so: 97% of the time two of the black dots will land in the same place. Now we can read through the proof and be absolutely convinced, yet common sense tells us ‘no’.

How can that be changed? It is changed in one way: we do an experiment. I got hold of a copy of ‘Who’s Who’, which gives the birthdays, not merely birth-years, of everyone in it, and took samples of the entries.  The first six or seven names listed were taken from each alphabetical section, and I ended up with three groups of fifty. I then checked them over to see if there were any pairs born on the same day. In the first group of fifty there was one pair, born on April 6, but the next group contained four matches: March 13, July 11, June 14, and November 15. After that, my instinctive inability to believe it disappeared; the experiment confirmed it.

In the same vein, in yoga we have theories, and they can be proved through careful reasoning and analysis. Yet the mind does not take them in. But, when they are verified, at least partially by experiment, than the resistance of the mind is overcome and they can be accepted. It must not be merely theory; if it is, then it will never have any depth to it. We shall be told: ‘You are that’, and we shall reply: ‘Yes, I can say without any hesitation that I am….brown? The print is not very clear. Oh! Brahman! I am Brahman, the Absolute! I am fear….(turns the page)…less and immortal!’ That is merely theory, and it has to be truth gained through experience.  But how are these things brought about?  Let’s look at some of the actual cases given in the Upanishads.

In the Upanishad, the boy Bhrigu goes to his father, who is a sage, and he says: ‘Teach me Brahman, father.’ The boy has already done considerable study, and he knows about Brahman, and the desire for liberation has risen in him.

The boy’s father does not teach him directly, but first gives him six clues: food, breath, the eye, the ear, mind and speech. These are called ‘doors’, and we have to go through the doors, not just stand in front of them. For instance, the eye is a door, and we have to find that which the eye cannot see, but by whose power the eye sees. The mind is a door, and we have to find that which the mind cannot think, but by whose power the mind thinks.

Then the boy’s father says to him: that, from which the whole Universe has come forth, by which it is sustained, into whom it is finally dissolved – this is the definition of Brahman. He doesn’t say: ‘Now you know.’ He says: ‘Seek to know the facts, try to know the facts.’ Then the boy, the young disciple, sits down and practises tapas, which literally means ‘austerity’.

In the Gita there are three kinds of tapas: the austerity of the body (simplicity of life, a certain pleasantness and uprightness, and honesty; not being pleasant to peoples’ faces and then slandering them behind). Then there is the tapas of speech, which means saying what is true and useful, and not provocative. But the highest austerity is the austerity of the mind, which is inner calmness, and finally silence. S’ankara, in his commentary to the Upanishad, says that the highest form of tapas is meditation, and he defined it as samadhana or samadhi, the peak of meditation, so these are clues.

© Trevor Leggett


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