Monday, April 16, 2012

The theory of Maya: Is it all Illusion?

The problem with understanding Hindu philosophy is that the Sanskrit terms do not lend themselves to ready translation. The most common translation of Maya has been Illusion. Consequently, a lot of ridicule has been heaped on this theory since scientific experiments are considered to have proved the reality of what we perceive around us.

Four blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. One feels the tail and says, ‘I know what an elephant is! It is a rope’. Another feels the leg and says, “No! It is a pillar’. A third feels the body and says, “It is a wall” and the fourth feels the trunk and says “It is a snake!”

The reality, of course, is that the elephant is none of the above, which is not a denial of perceptions of the people concerned. Maya is what causes the difference between reality as it is and reality as it is perceived. Thus, Maya actually talks about the limitations of your perception and your inability to perceive reality truly.

The fact remains that human beings are capable of seeing and thinking only in three dimensions, incapable of imagining infinity and cannot understand most things except through the language of mathematics. Can you think of a number that is neither positive nor negative? We know that any number multiplied by itself can only yield a positive number. Yet we use the concept of the square root of -1, call these numbers imaginary numbers and use them in a bid to understand the universe! In more mundane terms, we cannot hear what a dog can hear or see the world as an owl would see it. The reality of the everyday world with perceptions enhanced would probably be much different from the way we perceive it.

Most of what science has discovered about the universe and yourself are not readily perceived by you. For example, babies are supposed to be about 75% water but the fact that you cannot pour your baby into a jar and carry her while traveling does not make you disbelieve that assertion. The biologist talks of a body made of multiple cells but we cannot perceive it directly except through the help of instruments. The physicist sees in everything atoms and sub-atomic particles and atoms are composed mostly of empty spaces. The fact that the wall in front of you is mostly empty space according to physics does not make it possible for you to walk through it. (Please do not try – unless you are a ghost!)

According to Einstein all mass is but concentrated energy. Thus, there is an essential oneness in the universe (leaving aside minor irritants like variations in the amplitude and frequency of energy waves which differentiates color in visible light etc.). We, certainly, do not see the person in front of us as concentrated gamma rays or some such thing and, yet, we do not disbelieve Einstein either!

If anything in Hindu philosophy is completely proven (and, possibly, endorsed by other schools of philosophy) it is the limitations of perception. Thus, the one singular truth should be the Mayavada. Advaita asserts that it is possible for the person to pierce the veil of Maya i.e achieve perfect perception. That may be open to question.

The nature of true reality, which is obscured by Maya, is also a matter of speculation. Whether true reality is as prescribed by one of the Vedantic philosophies or of one of the other schools of thought prevalent in the world is also open to question.

The one absolute truth is that Maya is not (an) Illusion!

12 comments:

  1. Nice article, CS. Have you read a short story by Isaac Asimov where an alien awakens a sixth sense in a human temporarily. After that he feels like he has become blind without that sixth sense.

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  2. Thanks, TF! Cant exactly recollect the story...reading too many to remember any, maybe:)

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  3. little heavy for me but liked ur logic and of course the narration. enjoyed the read :)

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  4. I have read a lot on such topics but this is what makes a layman understand the simplest of words in our hindi language. And to tell you the truth today I perhaps got a much clearer picture of the word 'maya' than ever before...

    Richa

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  5. That was quite an insightful post and the examples you provided to prove that Maya is anything but an illusion were quite illuminating to say the least. Nice post...wonder if the big 50 is bringing out the philosopher in you...

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    1. Ah! Jairam - Not at all. This is an old post :)

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  6. Quite different from your regular posts. Makes you think, maya, make believe, illusions, perception....

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    1. There are a few of these as well on this blog.

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  7. Maya is perception....and a relative perception at that. You have dessiminated the concept pretty well. Something that is ephemeral and elusive to some, maybe a normal happening for another. Sir neenga yengayo poythenga!

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