Rainbow Worlds

‘Rainbow world’ is a phrase used by a great modern yogi, Swami Mangalnath.  He said we must learn not merely to think of, but to experience, the world as a beautiful rainbow.  Such things are analogies, but they are not to be dismissed as simply poetry. We are asked to think what they mean.  The rainbow is an appearance when the sun is low and it is raining.  The sky is full of water, and the rays of the sun are refracted and reflected in the raindrops, and come to our eyes when we are standing on the ground looking in a particular direction.  The rays appear in coloured bands:  red at the top, then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.  Always red is at the top, and there is a definite reason for this.  The raindrops can be analysed.  It is not worth going into it too much, but roughly speaking, the rays come into a raindrop and are first refracted.  This means that they divide into the familiar coloured rays of the spectrum, from red to violet.  Then these coloured rays are reflected back out of the raindrop, and can be seen by someone standing in the right position and looking in the right direction.

A Yoga student is told to practise realization of world as something like a beautiful rainbow.  Children think the rainbow is a solid thing, but adults know it is created by the rays of the sun passing into the raindrops and reflected back to the eyes.  Though it is illusory, yet it has a structure.  The sun’s rays are bent as they enter each raindrop.  The white light is broken up into the colours of the spectrum:  violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.  These are reflected, still broken up, inside the raindrop and come out of it on the same side where they went in.  Without going into the details, it can be said roughly that the red rays, which are bent the least, come out of the lower end of the drop; the violet rays, which are bent the most, come out at the top.  The other colours come out, in order, between these two limits.

A human observer, standing and focussing suitably, sees a rainbow.  Because red comes out from the bottom of the raindrop, the higher raindrops will reflect red into his eyes. (It reflects violet and the others as well, but they go over his head and he does not see them.)  As the raindrop falls lower, rays from its middle and then from its lower end are reflected.  So to any one observer, each drop as it falls reflects first red, then yellow and so on to violet.  All the time the sky is full of drops.  So the effect is of steady arched bands of light across the horizon.  Children remember coloured ribbons or arches they have seen and felt, and they see the rainbow as equally solid.

The point is that this is an illusion, and we know it is an illusion.   Yet it has a certain form, which is supposed to be determined by the raindrops which we see, and by the refraction and reflection in them which we do not see.  There is an unmanifest form, so to speak, and then there is the visible rainbow.  We know that red will always be on top.  It is an illusion, but we experience it always with the red on top.  So if someone were to describe a rainbow with red at the bottom, we would know that this was a mere fancy, a myth, a fairy story.  That would be an illusion too – but it is an illusion never actually experienced, we could say.   It would be something completely unreal, just made of words:  an imaginary rainbow with violet at the top and red at the bottom.  The laws of nature make it impossible.

We could think so – but as a matter of fact, we should be wrong.  We think that the underlying structure makes the familiar rainbow absolutely inevitable, but there are cases where a rainbow can appear with reversed colours.  The point is worth taking up because in Yoga we are taught that the whole world is an illusion.  We can easily slip into thinking that the world as experienced is the only possible illusion that can be experienced – then the world becomes in fact real to us.  We forget that the illusion has two elements:  the unmanifest underlying structure of the object, and the structure of the observer’s mind.

Shankara gives an example to illustrate this point.  A man carrying a lantern sees a rope lying on the ground.  The lantern is moving and the shadow of the rope moves, giving the impression that it is a snake moving there.  He actually sees a snake; his eyes tell him: ‘snake!’ and he gets a little shock.  In a similar situation in London, an ordinary Londoner does not see a snake. Many of us have never seen a snake outside the zoo; we know there are no snakes in houses.  Suppose a thick belt has been stuffed on to a cupboard shelf so that it rests against the door.  Two people looking for something open the door, and the coiled belt falls out on to their feet.  One who has been in India will jump back very quickly.  The other, who has not, stands calmly as the belt coils round his ankle.  The first sees a snake; the second does not.  He has an indistinct image of something long and thin and moving, but he does not project a snake on to it.  He has never seen a snake come out of a cupboard.  In the Indian example, Shankara explains that the rope may be mistaken not necessarily for a snake, but perhaps for a line of water on the ground  (‘Oh, that tub’s leaking again’), or for a garland.  His point is that the unmanifest, which we do not see for what it is, can be mistaken in various ways.  It depends on the mind of the one who sees it.

So the world illusion is governed by laws indeed, but they are laws of the mind, since the whole world is a creation of the mind.  This does not mean that it can be manipulated by a casual thought, any more than a nightmare can.  Casual thoughts, based on a sense of helplessness, affect nothing.  But concentrated thought, if it transcends associations with a limited self does become a potent factor in the world projection.   It is worth adding that this idea that the seen world is unreal, but based on a deeper layer of reality, is not some primitive idea dispelled by the physics of today.

Physics had another earthquake in 1982, beginning with the Aspect experiments in Paris, whose shock-waves have not yet been fully realized. Here is an extract from the 1986 book Quantum Reality:  ” “Bell’s theorem shows that although the world’s phenomena seem strictly local, the reality beneath this phenomenal surface must be beyond the speed of light. The world’s deep reality is maintained by invisible quantum connection whose alternating interval is unmediated, unmitigated and immediate.”  This proves nothing yogic. The scientists conduct their own experiments, and it is they who should interpret these experiments.  But it is worth quoting it to show that the yogic analysis is not ridiculous in terms of physics today.  On the contrary, such ideas are being considered today, especially since 1982.

In the philosophy taught by Dr. Shastri, the world is compared to an illusion.  The word is used in a special limited sense.  It does not mean something created simply out of words, like a fairy story, with no basis in experience at all.  It does mean an actual experience, like a mirage in the desert.  A memory of water is projected on to a background not clearly seen, and the thirsty man cries: ‘Ah, water!’  In the case of the world illusion, there is a further qualification:  it is not an accident, like a mirage or a rainbow.  The world illusion is projected by an intelligent Lord, for a benevolent purpose.  It therefore has some value.  ‘He is the friend of all beings’, says the Gita.

It is the divine purpose that gives Yoga practice its point.  Pure consciousness alone has no meaning for the world.  The 19th-century scientist and philosopher Ernst Mach drily pointed out that the universe may well be pure consciousness, as Idealists claim.  But if there is no purpose in it, everything remains the same.  We are still here, with the same problems, which only science can help us to solve, and science (he stressed) must not speculate.  So he proposed treating the atom, too small ever to be observed, as a fiction, but useful in making calculations.  On the facts known to him, his position was not unreasonable, and it became the basis of Logical Positivism in the next century.

Yoga however has a range of experiments not known to Mach.  These are not analyses of physical objects by an observer who is himself not analysed.  The Yoga experiments are on consciousness itself.  They penetrate into the nature and purpose of the universe, and into the essence of the individual who experiences it.  Mach’s procedures correspond to trying to understand the present and future course of a factory by minutely analysing the memos and directives going round in it.  The Yoga corresponds to getting to know the manager, and finally working with him.  Name and form appear to us, and they are based on something which is much deeper.  Yoga has its own experiments; it is not a philosophy which depends on looking at the results of experiments in the outer world and says:  ‘Yes, yes.   And furthermore …’   The only purpose of looking at experiments from another field is to show that there is not necessarily the conflict, which is sometimes assumed.  The main significance of the Yogic experiments is that they find intelligence and purpose behind the apparently meaningless sequences of events in the illusory world.

The example of a play was given by Shankara, and very frequently by our own teacher.   When we go to a play we see a world which has its own history.   In Hamlet we see an ancient castle, which must have been built centuries ago.  It’s odd that some of the characters in this Denmark have Roman names, such as Horatio. Surely the Romans never got as far north as Denmark?  Ah, but some of the northern European chiefs took Roman wives, who partially civilized them.  They would doubtless have given some of the children Roman names.  Polonius is another Roman name; it means a man from Poland.  How would a Pole have an important position at the Danish court?  Well, there is a reference to wars on Poland’s icy plain.  Doubtless his ancestor would have been Polish Ambassador after the war; he would have stayed on, and the nickname would have become the formal name of his descendants.  In such ways the play produces its own history as we analyse it.

To help the process, characters in a play often show a mania for autobiography.  When at the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero berates Ariel for ingratitude, he says:  “Must I again remind you …?”   Indeed he must, if the audience are to pick up the story so far.  In this way the present and past setting of the play is completed. It is to be noted that it has its own laws of nature, which are not self-contradictory, though they may contradict the laws of nature of another play.   In Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck can fly, as can Oberon and Titania; they are Indian divinities, though this is not always made clear in the production.  They can fly –  that is one of the laws of the play.  Another law concerns the herb, love-in-idleness, whose juice put into the eye of the sleeper produces love at first sight on waking.  The effectiveness of this herb is one of the laws of the play, and it works.  We see it working.  We don’t think,  “Oh, how ridiculous!”   If we go to Julius Caesar, on the other hand, people cannot fly.  The idea of flying would be ridiculous in Julius Caesar – but there are ghosts.  Caesar’s ghost warns Brutus: “We meet at Philippi”.  There are no ghosts in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Each play has its own setting and its own laws.  We can see that the dramatist sets both play and its laws.  Looked at from the standpoint of a different play, laws may well seem contradictory, but in their own right, they stand and are not contradictory.

Our teacher used to stress the point that the maya of the Lord, the illusion, has an intelligent purpose. Part of that purpose is to reveal the Lord not only as presiding over the events outside, but also as presiding over the internal events in the heart. The Yoga training is to discover the Lord not only externally, but within as well.  Specific and definite experiments are given; it is not a question of guesses or inferences or ideas or blind belief, desperately hoping against hope. If the experiments are not done, there will always be a drift towards scepticism.  There is intelligence behind the operations of the universe.   Materialism does not think so, but materialism, as Eddington pointed out, is based on selecting certain things to notice.  I am based on abstraction.  It seems to be objective, but it is objective only because it has ruled out so much of the universe.   Another great scientist, Einstein, pointed out that a good deal of science is rather like accountancy.  Whether you are considering cheeses or blast furnaces, they become figures.  An accountant can run a steel mill without ever going near the place; everything in it is represented by numbers, which figure in the profit and loss account.  Customer satisfaction is represented by a number on a scale.  He can simply run it all on figures.  He can be objective about the trends shown by the numbers, but he is objective only because he never sees the place, but knows only the abstractions.

Our teacher said that one of the tests of the existence of intelligence behind the universe lies in what we call inspiration.  This is one of the manifestations of it, though not the only one.  He used to point out how many of the central discoveries of science are arrived at not by testing logical hypotheses to account for what cannot yet be explained.  They may come about in an extraordinary way – not by chance, but something much stranger than chance.  There is a resistance against admitting this, especially among some scientists who like to think of themselves as proceeding by logical steps on a materialist basis.   There is a famous remark, which our teacher used to quote, that the idea of solving the world-riddle with concepts of materialism, is like searching in a dark room for a black cat which is not there.

There is only one thing to add to that, and it is that every hundred years or so, Materialism shouts:  “I’ve got it!” Just about a hundred years ago, many leading scientists such as Kirchoff and Kelvin asserted that nearly everything was now known.  They were cocksure, to use a phrase of the time.  Then there was the great explosion of the quantum theory by Planck in 1900, then Einstein and the analysis of the photo-electric effect (that is what he got his Nobel Prize for) and relativity – all of which shattered the mechanical model of the universe, though some physicists clung to it for years.  The same thing is happening today – it is being said that almost everything is known or about to be known.  The analysis is supposed to be almost complete.  But again some crucial experiments, beginning with Aspect’s in 1982, have sawn off the branch on which the comfortable certainties were sitting. Again there are scientists who maintain that surely nothing can have happened.

The point for the moment is that the rainbow always has red at the top and violet at the bottom.  The illusion is not arbitrary, like a sort of dream.  Though it is illusory, it has a definite structure.  This is partly determined by the physical laws governing the light-rays and raindrops, and partly by where the observer is and where he is looking.  One might conclude:  “All rainbows have red at the top.  Any report of one with, say, red at the bottom would be a mere fancy, a fairy tale.  Because it would be impossible.  The structure of the illusion forbids it.”  However, this would be wrong.  There can be a secondary rainbow in which violet is at the top, and red at the bottom.  Some rays are reflected right round inside the raindrop before they come out.  The point is that the same structure can give this very different result.

Helmholz was one of the pillars of the triumphant mechanical model of late 19th century science. He once remarked about telepathy:  “Even if all my colleagues were convinced of it, even if it were demonstrated before me in my own laboratory, I would never accept it.   It is absolutely impossible.”  The fact that he says it so violently shows a deep emotional bias.  Helmholz believed that he and a few colleagues had almost completed the jigsaw of physics.  He did not want new unpredictable factors brought in.  He was also a good man, and may have dreaded the thought, in those pre-Freudian days, of someone rummaging through the secret places of the heart.  Such deep-seated prejudices are repudiated by scientists and others who claim to be objective.  However, sometimes they slip past the censor. Sir Karl Popper was eminent philosopher of science.  On page 242 of his famous book: Conjectures and Refutations:  The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (3rd edition, revised, 1969), he wrote:  “For instance, the marvellous theory of Bohr and Kramers in 1924 was almost immediately refuted by the experiment conducted by Geiger and others. This shows that not even the greatest physicist can anticipate the secrets of nature. His inspiration can only be guesses.”

Yet, on the other hand, some of the most interesting and admirable theories ever conceived were refuted at the very first test – and why not?  The most promising theory may fail if it makes predictions of a new kind.  An example is the marvellous theory of Bohr, Kramers and Slater of 1924 which, as an intellectual achievement, might even perhaps rank with Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom of 1913.  Yet unfortunately it was almost at once refuted by the facts – by the coincidence experiments of Bothe and Geiger.  ‘This shows that not even the greatest physicist can anticipate the secrets of nature:  his inspirations can only be guesses.’ The remark does not make sense.  How could a single case show that?  All it shows is that in that one case it was a guess – a single case does not show that inspirations can only be guesses.  It shows only that sometimes they may be.   The totally illogical jump from ‘that one was only a guess’ to ‘they can only be guesses’ is not reasoning. It is a basic emotional scepticism, which is just as irrational as emotional credulity.

The comedy is, that on page 148 of this very book, discussing Heraclitus, the early Greek philosopher, he writes:  “But the decisive point is, of course, that this inspired philosophy is true for all we know.  With his uncanny intuition, Heraclitus saw that things are processes, that our bodies are flames, and that ‘… a rock or a bronze cauldron … was invariably undergoing invisible changes.'”  ‘Inspired philosophy’, ‘uncanny intuition’…  When the subject is not the philosophy of present-day science, in which his official attitude is emotional scepticism, he is off his guard so to speak.  The barrier of prejudice is down for the moment. He accepts that truth-giving inspiration and intuition do occur.

Our teacher often produced examples of inspiration, some from the history of science, which he recommended his pupils to study. There was a famous case at the beginning of the century.  It concerns one of the most fruitful discoveries of the century.  In the biographies, these things are often treated as ‘chance’; but when we look at them we find many are not chance at all.  The technical details do not matter.   Rutherford was shooting alpha particles through a very thin medium.  In his own words, it was ‘like shooting 15-inch shells through tissue paper.  That was how he described the experiment for outsiders.  In the laboratory were his two assistants, one of them the famous Geiger.   Rutherford gave an extraordinary order.   ‘Let’s see whether any of them bounce off to the side.’  It seems almost mad: shooting 15-inch shells through tissue paper, and then looking to see whether any of them bounce off?  Totally against the whole logic of the situation.  Still, they tried it, and found that some of them did and that led to a completely new idea of the structure of the atom.  This was not chance.   If Geiger had happened to go walking round with one of his counters, by chance, behind the source of the alpha particles, and alertly notice that some of them seemed to be bouncing back, that would have been chance.  But it was not like that – Rutherford gave this absurd order.

Our teacher said that when you examine these cases carefully, you find that they have been led, as it were, to the discovery in spite of themselves. It stands out clearly in the case of Becquerel’s discovery of radio-activity when he was looking for X-rays produced by fluorescence, as it was then supposed.  Several times in the life of Pasteur, he remarked:  “Chance favours the prepared mind.” – but if it favours, it is not chance.  There is a historical prejudice in many Western scientists, so much so that interest in such things as telepathy can harm a career.  The Japanese are more rational.    A Japanese physicist was asked whether it was the same in Japan, and replied:  “Oh no.  A colleague of mine is doing some research in telepathy.  Offhand, I wouldn’t expect that there is anything there.  But how do I know?  He may find something.  There is another colleague who is spending a lot of time on a particular aspect of field theory.   Again I doubt whether he will come across anything.  But he may.  After all, he knows much more about it than I do, and he thinks it is worth his while.”

One of the Yoga methods for receiving inspiration is to sit in meditation.  We are told that it is best to sit cross-legged on the floor, and if possible to put one foot up on the opposite thigh. At first this is uncomfortable for most Westerners but young people who persist with it, sitting a few minutes several times a day, can achieve a comfortable stable position – body and neck upright – within a couple of months.  The Japanese used to achieve it more quickly, but now it is the same for most of them too.    Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (II.46 – 48) affirm that when the posture becomes stable and easy, a sitter becomes immune to circumstances, there is no disturbance from the pairs of opposites like heat and cold.

There is a hospital in Tokyo which treats cases – which are becoming more and more numerous in Japan – of a sort of nervous collapse from overwork.   In broadcasting, for instance, they go on the air at three in the morning, come off at eleven, snatch five hours sleep, and are on again at nine in the evening.  This goes on for three or four days running.    With such regimes, everyone gets a bit tense and nervous, and some of them finally collapse.  There is this hospital which specialises in treating them.  The Director is not at all interested in Zen or spiritual things or anything like that.  But he said that part of the treatment is, to teach those who are willing to learn the formal sitting posture on the ground as practised in Yoga and Zen.  It is of course only a helpful accessory.   But he has found, and the patients find that, when they sit in this posture, their anxiety lessens and they become calm.  This confirms the sutras of Patanjali, and the experience in the Yoga which we follow here.  Irrespective of any theory, the physical act of sitting regularly in this posture calms tensions and fears.  He has a corridor in the hospital along the side of which there are a number of the round black meditation cushions used in monasteries.  He told me that some patients get the habit of going and sitting on them for an hour or more and they find it gives them a little peace.  He added with a twinkle:  “It’s very good for the nurses, you know.  They know where the patients are, and they know they’re not up to anything.”  He has no interest whatever in Zen, but he was willing to try this.  He has found it effective. It is not, of course, his main method of treatment.

We are told in the holy texts that the world is illusory, and that we have entered into the world. Then we have become identified with it and this fact is the cause of our suffering. There is an illustration which was not available in that form in classical times – it is the television programme.  There are TV series and the producers tell us that viewers become so involved with them that they take them as somehow real.  An actress complains, following her script, that she has migraine; she gives a powerful performance of suffering.  In the next few days, letters arrive from viewers with suggested cures for migraine.  The producer of one serial had to apologize because when a much-loved character was to retire to the country (in the script), he allowed the scriptwriter to give the name of an actual village in the Midlands.  Soon afterwards, fans went down there and were knocking up the residents to ask where this character was living – “She’s recently moved to this village.”  The producer remarked how many viewers find it difficult to distinguish what is real from what they see on the screen.  When someone dies in the serial, the station receives some wreaths.They even had a letter addressed to one of the fictional husbands saying, ‘I think you ought to know that your wife is carrying on with your best friend.’

Such viewers have entered the play and want to take part in it themselves, moved by feelings of compassion or whatever it might be. These are descendants of the Victorian audiences who hissed the villain, and shouted warnings to the hero.  It all sounds naive and ridiculous, but the Yoga tells us that this is in fact what we are doing.  We too tend to enter.   There are in fact two positions.  One is that viewers can sit and watch.  They may be disturbed by the television programme, although they know it’s unreal.  If they see a very well-acted play and if it touches something in themselves, they’re maybe disturbed by it – but they retain the knowledge: “This is really nothing to do with me. This is illusory.” So, in that case, when their awareness is retained of their true self – which is detached entirely from the television serial – when that is retained, then the fan can take his stand on that knowledge. Not to think or watch the programme for a bit, but to think: “I am free. I’m nothing to do with it. I’m free.”

But there are those who have actually begun to act, who are going to the television centre, trying to warn some character or looking for them somewhere, or sending wreaths or, if one character has migraines, sending up migraine cures.  If people are writing things like that, or sending wreaths, they have lost the sense of being separate and they are themselves taking part in it. For these people the Yoga says they are following karma yoga – they’re taking part in this unreal world. Shankara says this is the position of most of us – we are taking part in the world.  For us it is no use to say, “I am separate from the world”, because I feel that I’m actually in it. I feel that I ought to help somebody who’s in trouble, who has migraine. “I have a good migraine cure. I ought to send it up. I must do that.”

For those people, they have to go into the fact that this is a serial – and one of the best methods is to go to the actual studios (which you can do) and see it being put on. There you can see the actors putting on the make-up – and when an actor seems to die here, “Later on you’ll see him walking up!” This might be equivalent to the eleventh chapter of the Gita in which Arjuna has a vision of the whole world scenario with the apparent life and the apparent death and the changes. At first he’s terribly shocked because he’s thought of all this as real, but then gradually he comes to see that it’s unreal – that it’s not something that has any effect on him at all. It’s meant to entertain, to please, but it’s become a bondage. Now he frees himself by first of all realising that it’s unreal and then, when he’s realised that it’s unreal, to sit and to watch it if he wants to watch it – but to know that he is free, nothing to do with the unreal happenings there.


©  Trevor Leggett

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