Maya is a magical illusion

Maya is a magical illusion

(… continued from The Spiritual Teacher in the Gita)

Now, we have these three requirements: obeisance – prostration it is sometimes rendered – asking questions and service.  Shankara in [the Bhagavad Gita chapter IV,] verse 39 (they were given in verse 34 but in verse 39), Shankara explains that these are simply external things and they can all be imitated. He uses a very strong word ‘maya-vi-tva,’ – ‘trickiness’.

Our teacher told us a story of this, about maya. This is a sort of trick of illusion, a magical illusion. There is a temple in a remote part of a kingdom in the Himalayas.  Some of those kingdoms have been quite rich in the early days, but this was a temple in quite a remote part.  A European traveller came there and in the dim shrine there was an image of Shiva. He was somehow taken with it. There was a sort of magic about it. He gave up his travels, in fact, and became a devotee at the shrine. Our teacher said he remained for several months and he became noted and very widely respected.

Finally, he said to the priest, “Now I have to go but I’m very attached to the image of the Shiva, the image you have there. I will make a substantial donation so that you can get another one.” The priest said, “Yes.  I realise you are in love with that image of Shiva and we can get another one, certainly we can get that”.  Later, they discovered that the image had been made of a rare jade and in the dim light they hadn’t known how valuable it was, but the traveller had recognised it and he had put on this ‘trickiness’ of service and devotion, and absolute prostration in order to get hold of the image.

Now, our teacher gave that example and Shankara gives the example too of service. He says, “The service must not be done in the sense ‘may the Lord be pleased with it’, because if it is done in that way and not as a service for its own sake, it is done so that the Lord may be pleased with it.  Then if the Lord does not respond we shall begin to think the Lord is ungrateful, and then we shall feel that we have been let down.”

Then, the verse speaks of the teacher not only as a knower but as one who has seen the truth. In the Gita generally, the word ‘jnana’ means knowledge and realisation, but occasionally it is coupled with another word. Then, in that case the other word can be the full realisation and the word ‘jnana’ can just be text knowledge and idea knowledge, knowing the doctrine as an idea.

For instance, in Chapter 16 he would say, “Jnana is knowing the thing is taught in the texts and by the teacher but Yoga is actualising them in his own experience.” The teacher then, (as a qualification set up for the teacher) must be a seer of truth, a Tattvadarshin. Then the pupil is to go [to him], and it says, ‘learn,’ and the teacher teaches.

The teacher can only teach. We can’t learn for the pupil as we well know. You could have a very good teacher but if the pupil doesn’t want to learn, the pupil will not learn. In this part of the world we tend to think if there is a failure to learn it is the fault of the teacher. He has not made it interesting. He has not engaged the attention and interest. He has not made it fun. But in the Far East they tend to think if there has been a failure it is the pupil’s fault. The pupil is there to learn.  I don’t want to describe it too much but the Chinese character for ‘to learn’ consists of three elements, and those three elements are ‘hit that child’.

Now verse 38 said, “Purified by Yoga”. “Purified by Yoga, in time, he himself, finds knowledge by himself.” This is a phrase that often comes in the Gita. “He, himself, sees it by himself, in himself,” it says, “The Lord knows himself.” There is the Atman in the pupil which has to be awoken so that it sees and knows itself.  “Purified by Yoga.”  Shankara says, “This means Karma Yoga”, the yoga of action – action in evenness of mind, not being excited by success, trying hard for it but not being excited when success comes, and not being cast down by failure – “and by Samadhi Yoga.” The purification is done by those two things.

Samadhi is meditation – the yoga of evenness of mind, in action, in the world and in meditation in an isolated spot.  “Well”, you think, “What is the point of this? Truth is communicated. What is the point of this purification?” This comes very frequently. But if the truth’s simply given, the pupil may not be able to take it in. He can repeat it and he can think he believes it but he can’t, in fact, take it in.

One of the great Chinese masters, who inspired the Japanese to resist the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, Bukko, he was asked in a public meeting [by a] learned priest, “I have the truth. We know the truth. What is all this about a path? We have the truth.” Bukko replied, “The seeds are indeed sown, but the shoots don’t come up”.  Now, they don’t care to explain but if the ground hasn’t been broken up and if the weeds haven’t been removed, and the stones removed, then although the seeds have been planted the ground can’t receive them. The purification of the mind is to make the ground, so to speak, able to receive the seed.

Now, you think, “Oh, well, I don’t know. Surely the truth is the truth. It is not a question of anything like that,” but then a number of examples can be given. Now, one is this: that one of the doctrines – and the main doctrine – of the Vedanta and the Gita is that the world is an illusion, a trick of illusion. Shankara sometimes calls it a ‘mirage.’ A mirage has practical effects, people run to get there, to get the water. It has practical effects and an illusion can have practical effects.

Our teacher used to tell us that the old idea to go through a field with thick grass [was] to stand at the gate, so to speak, and to call on Mother Earth and stamp three times, and make a prayer for Mother Earth.  If you did this then there would be no fear of snakes and you [could] cross the long grass. He said, “The snakes feel the vibration when you stamp and they think a rhinoceros is coming, and they disappear.” The idea that mumbling this magic prayer will remove the snakes is an illusion but nevertheless it is practical. It has practical effects. Now this, then, is one of the doctrines of the Gita.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: The Spiritual Teacher in the Gita

Part 2: Maya is a magical illusion

Part 3: The world is like a dream

Part 4: Withdraw the senses


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