"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell













PRABUDDHA BHARATABeyond Illusions | Swami Satyamayananda  






 Beyond Illusions



Swami Satyamayananda




     Most of us remember having watched a sunset. This daily occurrence has never failed to make an observer calm. As the sun dips inexorably towards the horizon, it appears to get progressively closer and larger, and then, with a burst of glory, sinks below the horizon. What most of us do not realize is the fact that though the sun is real, a sunset is subject to two types of illusion: one, the very structure of the universe makes one see the sun set; the other is the illusion of size and colour resulting from the very structure of the mind. The latter is due to subconscious perceptual conditioning. The brain uses the horizon or the objects on the terrain, as visual reference points. This makes the sun appear closer and larger. When it is overhead, its size appears much smaller. Apart from this, atmospheric dust and water vapour distort light and make the sunset colourful.


     Illusions are never willed; illusions are harmless; illusions enhance life. If we are conditioned to experience illusions we have also conditioned ourselves to take them for granted. Besides, illusions are not indicative of any visual or psychological disorder. But a question arises: If this experience is true, then illusions might cover similar or all experiences, for the two factors (the structure of matter and mind) are common to all experiences. What, then, is actually out there?




     Illusory Experiences




     Let us say you are travelling in a train which has temporarily halted for some reason at a station deep in the Indian countryside. It is late and as you gaze out of the window, you notice the moon racing across the dark cloudy sky. The noise usual in a second-class coach recedes to the background as the sound of another trains horn is heard rising in volume. You crane your neck out to watch the other train approaching on the opposite track. As the other train passes by your window, you feel a sudden lurch as if your own train has started and moved forward. Simultaneously the sound of the other trains horn begins to fade. As that train speeds away, you notice that your train has not moved an inch. After five minutes the train does move on and you notice the sylvan landscape flying backwards. Relaxing in the seat you glance at the wristwatch, which says the train was detained for just ten minutes. But it felt like half an hour. You acknowledge a smile of relief from the dark co-passenger sitting in front. His smile reveals brilliant white teeth. A few feet away a child inadvertently drops the fragile toy she is playing with. She lets out such a wail seeing her toy broken that everybody within earshot is made to wince. A full minute of this assault on the eardrums is stilled as the child suddenly gets another toy from her mother. The passengers luxuriate in the wonderful silence.


     What you experienced during the last ten minutes was something remarkable. Clouds sailing across the sky due to a stiff wind made the moon appear to race. The fact that you felt the train had restarted while it was stationary was an illusion. This was due to the mind using the passing train and its sound (which itself was varying due to the Doppler effect) as frames of reference. The landscape flying past the window is an illusion related to the direction of movement. Time seems to crawl while waiting and fly when we are engaged in something. The brilliant white teeth of the co-passenger are an illusion occasioned by the contrast of his dark skin. The childs wail had masked all other sounds, even the clutter of the wheels, and when she stopped, the silence you experienced was also an illusion.




     Profound Questions




     If such human experiences are illusory, why then are they categorized as real? Is our conception of reality then a mixture of the real and the illusory? Is it illusion that makes us think of human experiences as real? Or is it an illusion that we think we experience illusions? This is no illusory loop within a loop clever argument. This subject has been studied down the ages and has retained its contemporary relevance. For answers to this question will reveal the nature of the physical world that exists independent of the sensory organs. Or, in other words, whether what one experiences at all exists the way it is perceived.




     Illusions Closer Home




     Illusions are closer at hand than sunsets. An artist paints with the idea of creating an illusion of depth on the canvas. Do we see the artists illusion, or does our mind create the illusion of three dimensions when there are only two? A writer creates an illusion in the readers mind that the latter comprehends what has been written. Does the writer create the illusion or is it our mind that deceives us? Movies also create illusions in which we lose ourselves. There are many people and many philosophies that foster the illusion that our lives and times are perfectly all right, So enjoy yourself! As if this were not enough, there are people who have closely and professionally studied illusions, not to eradicate but to magnify them. Magicians and illusionists are looked at with awe and fascination. They make use of illusions to entertain and educate.




     Science and Sensory Deception




     Evolution has endowed human beings with a refined sensory nervous system, capping it with a cerebral cortex superior to that of other creatures. Yet it is known how inadequate our senses are compared to those of other life forms. To offset this limitation and further enhance knowledge, humans have developed instruments to peer minutely at things to find out how they work; for we dislike misinterpreting reality, whatever be the reality of illusions. The history of science itself is a history of humanity trying to understand the environment and come to terms with it. But it seems for every problem it solves, a new one arises in its place. However, studies in neurology and the structural formation of sensory organs, besides those in electromagnetism, optics and thermodynamics, have eradicated a lot of misconceptions. But with all this knowledge it is seen that either matter seems to be deceiving us, or our senses, along with the brain and mind, are.




     Visual Perception and Our World




     Take the amazing visual apparatus, the foremost among our sense organs. We perceive in colour. Many wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation enter our eyes and a two-dimensional inverted image of the object is formed on the retina in each eye. Then with the help of photoreceptor cells (rods and cones), and dedicated nerves, the images are transmitted via the optic nerve, containing millions of nerve fibres, further up to the visual centre at the back of the brain. The brain re-inverts the images while fusing them into a single composite picture. This super-fast process that involves no less than forty centres simultaneously gives the complex spatial, temporal and colour information about the object out there and now. Yet with all these advances the actual process is still only vaguely understood. It must also be emphasized at this point that real perception is in the mind.


     Our world is densely packed with electromagnetic radiation, though only a small portion of it is perceptible. Every object, including our bodies, emits and absorbs radiation. Over and above these are the wavelengths emitted by modern machines, all impinging continuously on the organism (your cell phone begins beeping, and this is no illusion!). The brain has to sift through all this stimulus energy to give a coherent picture of things. At the same time, it is known that the brain can work only selectively, interpreting some stimuli and ignoring a good deal, in order to save itself time and energy to coordinate the motor nerves. This selection is made on the organisms basic need for survival. If every sensation from outside were to be interpreted, it would lead to terrible chaos. It is postulated that a major portion of the sensations is ignored. If this is the state of things, how can anyone believe that this tiny fragment of what is interpreted by the brain gives a perfect picture of the external world?


     The mind, apart from interpreting sensory stimuli, also contributes its own data to them. When still pictures are flashed on the screen at a certain speed, the brain interprets the pictures as continuous and fluid by completing the movements. This is done subconsciously and this is what has made motion pictures and television possible and enjoyable. Then, the familiar nearby objects, which we are used to seeing daily, are stabilized, which means that within a certain range the objects sizes will not vary. Another interesting auto-corrective phenomenon has been reported: In a study the subjects were made to wear special glasses that made the world appear upside down. Initially the brain got confused, but then it took over and astoundingly corrected the vision, right side up, though the special glasses were still on - and when the glasses were removed, the brain again got back to its old way of seeing things!




     Perception and Knowledge




     A mirage is experienced when light passing through the layers of hot air above a heated surface undergoes total internal reflection through the denser cold layer of air above it. Sometimes a mirage may contain not only trees and water, but whole towns may be seen floating in the air (the proverbial gandharvanagari, city of the celestial musicians). Even alleged UFO sightings could be the result of such illusion. Rail tracks converge at a distance. A stick half immersed in water appears bent. But we have the knowledge that mirages are unreal, that tracks do not converge and that sticks do not bend on immersion. Further, a whirling firebrand is seen to create a circle of light, but its illusory nature is known. This common knowledge proves that perception of an object and knowledge of it are two different things.




     Trans-sensory Illusions




     Illusions are not limited to visual ones alone but may also be trans-sensory. Very sensitive people say that they perceive colour when they hear certain words. Some musicians can also see colour when particular notes are struck. Then there is the mirror-ego phenomenon. It is questioned whether, when ones skin is touched while he is looking at himself in front of a mirror, one experiences the touch as if it were in the mirror image or perceives it to be in contact with ones own body as it actually appears in front of the mirror. These may be classed as pseudo-hallucinations, but whatever they are called, the bottom line is that perception of something is giving rise to a different cognition. There seems to be no strict cause-and-effect relationship in these cases. Anyone stepping out from a giant-wheel ride or from a rough boat trip feels the ground moving beneath the feet. Some scholars even include the phantom-limb phenomenon that amputees have under illusion, although the pain is very much experienced, and one takes real painkillers for it. Duja vu is a reliving of the experience of some person, place or thing; it is an illusion. Touching a hot object and then immersing the hand in lukewarm water will give a cold sensation. Lifting a heavy object before lifting another will make the second one seem lighter. These are a few illusions that are now being explained not as illusions but as simple experiences of disparity.




     The Great Deception




     It was mentioned that the brain reads only a part of the sensory stimulus; this means knowing the external world only partially. Secondly, the stimulus energy is subject to distortion (arthadhyasa in Vedanta). Thirdly, the senses are limited. Lastly, and most importantly, the mind contributes its own data (jnanadhyasa in Vedanta), which is itself based on the first and second imperfections. Now a serious question that arises is this: Is the mind itself the cause of illusions? Is everything that is experienced a deception? To look at it philosophically, science deals with sensory knowledge. Does it mean that science is taking help of imperfect sensory knowledge in trying to search for reality?


     An illusion is different from hallucination, a mild form of epilepsy, self-hypnotism or absent-mindedness. Illusion, as we have seen, has to have a real sensory stimulus from an object. There has to be a substratum. The experience of seeing illusions has been studied by most Indian philosophical systems, from hard-core Realists to the Nihilists (Buddhist Shunyavadins).




     The Real Psychology of Perception




     Let us take up the distinction between perception of the object and its knowledge once more and have a look at Swamijis explication of this fact:




     The whole universe is like the pearl which is being formed by us. What we get from the external world is simply the blow. Even to be conscious of that blow we have to react, and as soon as we react, we really project a portion of our own mind towards the blow, and when we come to know of it, it is really our own mind as it has been shaped by the blow. Therefore it is clear even to those who want to believe in a hard and fast realism that supposing we represent the external world by x, what we really know is x plus mind, and this mind element is so great that it has covered the whole of that x which has remained unknown and unknowable throughout; and, therefore, if there is an external world, it is always unknown and unknowable. What we know of it is as it is moulded, formed, fashioned by our own mind. (1)




     Pseudo-hallucination and Adhyasa




     Pseudo-hallucination was mentioned earlier in passing. Let us look at it again in order to illustrate adhyasa, or superimposition. Suppose a lazy worker notices his boss talking to a colleague. He can hear only snatches of indistinct conversation but when the word fired falls on his ears his apprehensions and fears hit him like a storm, and his hatred he then projects on the boss. Actually his boss had said tired referring to something else.


     When our feelings - wishes, anxieties and fears - are projected (or superimposed) on external objects, we misinterpret things and situations. This is what is called adhyasa and is one of the main pillars in understanding the Advaita Vedanta of Sri Shankaracharya. To let Swamiji explain adhyasa: There was a stump of a tree, and in the dark, a thief came that way and said, That is a policeman. A young man waiting for his beloved saw it and thought that it was his sweetheart. A child who had been told ghost stories took it for a ghost and began to shriek. But all the time it was the stump of a tree (2.87). One can never see two things in one; either it is a stump (sthanu) or a man (purusha).




     Reality from Illusion or Vice Versa?




     From a different standpoint, science still leaves us as confused as ever. Laws that operate in the world of objective matter are found to become completely unsubstantiated on a different scale and plane. The strict physical laws that govern the perceptible world of matter break down in the quantum world of subatomic matter. Indeterminacy, uncertainty, in this realm is giving rise to determinate laws and objects on the gross surface. One may well question whether chaos is giving rise to concrete objects or whether order is breaking down into chaos? One can also ask: Is illusion giving rise to the supposed reality or is something called reality giving rise to the illusion of objects? It is for sure that one thing is appearing as another. In the classical illustration of Vedanta, the rope is appearing as a snake.




     Three Orders of Existence and Experience




     Vedanta acknowledges three orders of existence: the absolute, paramarthika satta; the relative, vyavaharika satta; and the illusory, pratibhasika satta. These orders of existence are not graded. The absolute (Brahman) appears as the relative world, objects in the relative world cause illusions, and the illusory may appear as the real.




     We do not know anything about this universe, yet at the same time we cannot say that we do not know. This standing between knowledge and ignorance, this mystic twilight, the mingling of truth and falsehood - and where they meet - no one knows. We are walking in the midst of a dream, half sleeping, half waking, passing all our lives in a haze; this is the fate of everyone of us. This is the fate of all sense- knowledge. This is the fate of all philosophy, of all boasted science, of all boasted human knowledge. This is the universe (2.111-2).



     This explanation could also mean that Vedanta is trying to evade questions. But unlike the Buddhists who say Realize all this as illusion, Hinduism (Vedanta) says that within the illusion is the Real (8.273). In each act of cognition the reality called Brahman is vaguely perceived. It is due to this that there exists in everyone an unshakable belief in everything, including illusions, as permanent and real. It has to, because Brahman is Consciousness Absolute and illusion, maya, is indefinable.




     The Cause of Illusion




     A young man once asked Sri Ramakrishna: If the world is of the nature of illusion - magic - then why doesnt one get rid of it? The Master replied: It is due to the samskaras, inborn tendencies. Repeated births in this world of maya make one believe that maya is real. (2)


     To sum up this article with Swamijis words of hope:




     We are all travelling in this mirage of the world not knowing that it is a mirage. One day it will break up, but it will come back again; the body has to remain under the power of past Karma, and so the mirage will come back. This world will come back upon us so long as we are bound by Karma all will come back to us, but not with the same power. Under the influence of the new knowledge the strength of Karma will be broken, its poison will be lost. It becomes transformed, for along with it there comes the idea that we know it now, that the sharp distinction between the reality and the mirage has been known. (3)








     As we gaze at the beautiful sunset once more, nothing has changed optically but we have changed. We had so long lived in a self-constructed prison of our experiences. Now that we have had intimations of the Reality behind the illusion, our being vibrates with the great mantra of the Isha Upanishad addressed to the Reality behind the Sun (and Nature): O thou who art the nourisher, the solitary traveller, the controller, the acquirer, the son of Prajapati, do remove thy rays, do gather up thy dazzle. I shall behold by thy grace that form of thine which is most benign. I am that very Person that is yonder (in the Sun). (4)








     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8,1989; 9,1997), 3.403.

     2. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 585.

     3. CW, 2.282.

     4. Eight Upanishads, trans. Swami Gambhirananda, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), 1.27.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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