We are controlled by our illusions


Shankara says that we’re controlled by our illusions and that even with the man of knowledge who knows that it’s an illusion, for a time the memories can still go on and affect him. He makes this point in a number of places in his Gita commentary. But you think, “Well how can that be so?” I saw a dog once who had been tethered in a country where they don’t know how to treat the animals very well. They tethered the dog to a post in the garden for three or four months – and he nearly goes mad, barking with excitement, trying to get loose, but finally he becomes apathetic. Then he doesn’t go outside that circle even when the rope is taken away. He comes to the edge of it, then he stops. I made friends with him and although his legs were weak I finally succeeded in getting him to go beyond the circle in the company of a human being. He broke that sort of magic circle provided he was right next to me. And when we walked along there was a little gully in the ground to take rainwater – it was about three inches deep and about two inches wide and made of porcelain to channel off the rainwater. When he came to this he wouldn’t cross it. He’d never seen anything like that before, opening up, so to speak. So I had to put down a newspaper. And once the gap in the earth had been covered up, then he would cross the newspaper. After a bit he was able to cross it without the newspaper, but he always hated it – when he came up to this thing there’d always be a check. He remembered the time when he’d seen the earth was opening up. He’d never seen anything like that. So although he had clear knowledge that there was no danger there at all, still the memory of the past illusion affected him.

Shankara says that we can free ourselves from being marionettes, because we’re held to the machine by attraction and aversion. He says, “Love and hate are the two enemies of man. Let him avoid them by renunciation, by detachment.” He makes the point that there’s a sort of renunciation that can come from the impossibility of getting something. If it’s absolutely impossible and unthinkable for us, we don’t think about it at all. In a certain sense we have a detachment from them. We’re not tempted by it, because there’s no possibility at all of anything being actualised. Shankara says that this is no true detachment. The man feels he is detached from, say fame, because he has no chance of becoming famous – but in fact it’s not so, he may not be detached. Our teacher said that while we’re praying, we’re praying for this or that and we say the prayers are not answered, because when we pray for things we don’t necessarily get them. He used to mimic sometimes. He’d say we pray that our bank balance may go up, that our shares may go up. We pray that we should be speedily relieved of some illness. Then it doesn’t happen and we say, “My prayer’s not answered, my prayer’s not answered”, and he said, “Well, why have silly prayers”.

We can become habitual likers and dislikers over something that is quite illusory. For instance, people in this country, and in Europe generally, appreciate cheese, especially in France. I think De Gaulle made the remark, “How can you govern a country that’s got 173 different kinds of cheeses”. They admire cheese and the different varieties of it but to a traditional Japanese, cheese is food that gone bad. It’s rotten. Although they are used to it now, they were revolted by these Westerners stuffing this rotten food in their mouth – food that’s gone bad and claiming to enjoy it. At the beginning of the century anything foreign used to be called ‘cheesy’ and it was claimed that foreigners used to smell of cheese.

We think, “How ridiculous. Cheese is very nice.” But when we in turn are offered, in an expensive Chinese restaurant – eggs which are a year old – they’re purple. Hard boiled eggs a year old, taken out of their shells and they’re purple and grey and somehow you don’t much care for it. And the Chinese chef says “Go on, go on!” Well, if you can bring yourself to eat a bit of it, it’s not bad at all, but we’re rather revolted by the idea of an egg a year old. These likes and dislikes are something which simply we can see, in a sense, that they’re illusory, but nevertheless they’re quite strong.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Yoga in Troubled Times

Part 2: We are whirled by Maya

Part 3: We are controlled by our illusions

Part 4: Indulgence in the objects of the senses is the enemy

Part 5: Shankara says we are puppets

Part 6: The highest service

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