Is the Material World an Illusion or Reality?
Several people have asked me in recent days about the nature of māyā. This made me realize how little this concept is understood, and prompted me to write the following long post describing the problem of illusion, the various problems arising from its solution, and the nature of the correct solution.
Table of Contents
The Doctrine of Māyāvāda
All over Vedic texts, the material nature or prakriti is also termed as ‘māyā’, which literally means—“that which is not”. Pursuant to this there is a doctrine called Māyāvāda, which says that the world doesn’t exist. It is literally like a “hallucination”, which has no objective reality—independent of the observer.
But if that were the case, then why would two people have the same hallucination? For example, if you were looking at a building alongside your friend, and you agree that there is indeed a building, then what would be the reason for that agreement? To be fully consistent, the Māyāvāda doctrine now says that there isn’t actually a friend “out there”. Rather, what we call a “friend” is also a construct within our consciousness—quite like the building you see. Indeed, the other person is also a hallucinatory construct in which two individual personalities are created as an effect of māyā. Therefore, it is not just the building that is hallucinatory, but even the individuality of different persons that is a hallucination.
The Māyāvāda position can be further extended to say that when we talk to another person, and he seems to respond, that question and the answer are both the creation of māyā—i.e., a hallucination. In reality, there is just one consciousness, which when covered by māyā creates the notion of many individual persons, and many individual things. Even if God appeared in your vision, that vision would also be a hallucination. The only thing that we can be sure of is that there is one consciousness.
This position is slightly more sophisticated than solipsism in Western philosophy where only I exist, and the world is merely an image in my consciousness. The sophistication is that now, even “I” doesn’t exist; it is as much a creation of māyā as the “other”. This sophistication allows us to solve the problem of realism in a new way—we can say that there are many “I” created due to māyā and the consciousness is itself divided into many “I”. To support this argument, the Māyāvāda doctrine gives the example of space, and how it is seen from within a pot. The space itself is called Mahākāsha, while the space from within the pot is called Ghatākāsh. The argument is that whatever consciousness we have in this body is not the real consciousness; it is rather the consciousness that has already been put into a ‘pot’. Thereby, it has been divided into potted spaces, but if you break all the pots, then the space is only one.
It is almost impossible to defeat Māyāvāda because the philosophy is completely self-consistent, with one practical issue. That issue is that if all “embodied consciousness” is an illusion, then one cannot be considered liberated unless this “pot” of the body and mind is broken. Since that potted nature exists until we are dead, there is no way to know if someone is self-realized until they are dead. But when they are dead, there is no way to know if they were transcendental anyway. So, while in theory the doctrine is self-consistent, there is no practical way of knowing if someone has transcended the world or not, because the only way to know that is after their death. To counteract this problem, the concept of jīvana-mukta was created in Vedic philosophy—a person who is liberated even in this body.
If someone can be liberated even while living in the body, then the body cannot be called the cause of bondage. Likewise, that liberated stage would entail that the individuality of the soul is not due to māyā. So, now, the criticism of Māyāvāda reduces to just one argument—namely, that liberation in this body is possible. That liberated stage allows us to select the guru, who can then liberate others. That liberated stage becomes the foundation on which all the contentions of Māyāvāda—namely, the claim that there is only one consciousness, that the world is an illusion, that even vision of God is an illusion—are rejected. Since this entire doctrine rests on the concept of jīvana-mukta, unless a person is truly liberated in this body, there can always be shades of Māyāvāda in their philosophy. The Māyāvāda philosophy is very easy to understand and very hard to disprove, and hence it remains very popular.
The Doctrine of Māyā
However, once we reject Māyāvāda, we are still left with numerous statements about māyā in the Vedic texts. What do we do with them? We cannot reject māyā along with Māyāvāda, because that would undermine the entire Vedic system of philosophy. Therefore, the claim that the material world is māyā must be accepted, but it must be understood in a new way. In short, it is not enough that you reject Māyāvāda, unless you can provide a new interpretation of māyā. Unless an alternative understanding of māyā is presented, the criticism of Māyāvāda is tantamount to rejecting the entire Vedic system.
This alternative understanding of māyā, however, is so subtle and nuanced that people find it very hard to accept it. But without this alternative view of māyā, there is no other criticism of Māyāvāda. So, despite the difficulties in this alternative view of māyā, it must be accepted, even if it seems hard.
The alternative view of māyā is that the world is like a book, comprised of text. The text has three properties—(a) of its existence, (b) of its meaning, and (c) of its truth. The term ‘māyā’ pertains to the fact that the text exists, it is meaningful, but it is not true. Let’s illustrate this idea with an example.
Suppose a man says to a woman “I love you”. Under Māyāvāda, this statement was never truly uttered; we just hallucinated that such a statement was said. But under the alternative view of māyā, the statement was uttered, and it was meaningful, but it was not true. The claim that the world is māyā, therefore, amounts to saying that the world is a collection of false claims. Yes, they are uttered, and they are meaningful. But because they are false, they cannot be trusted. Conversely, if the same statement “I love you” is uttered in the spiritual world, then it exists, it is meaningful, and it is true. The difference between matter and spirit is therefore extremely subtle. Both worlds exist. Both worlds comprise of things that are meaningful. But one world is true claims and the other is false claims.
But What Is Truth?
This description of māyā doesn’t quickly abate the problem, because we must now define what we mean by truth. A simple definition of truth is called the Correspondence Theory of Truth and it says that a statement is true if it corresponds to reality. But the “reality” in question is not an easily understood thing. For example, if you say “I love you” the reality would be determined by whether you truly feel the love, or you are faking it. To decide if “I love you” is true, we must delve into a person’s mind.
Now, we must recall that the so-called reality is also a statement or text. So the correspondence notion of truth comes down to the consistency between two sentences—the first sentence is reality and the second sentence is the statement about that reality. This creates a big problem, because if your feeling of love is another sentence, then how do we know that that statement is indeed true? Obviously, we will need another statement with which that statement must be consistent to. Vedic philosophy answers this problem in a curious way. It says that there are indeed many levels of statements.
For example, giving a person gifts is a superficial statement of love, which can be taken as the evidence for the truth of “I love you”. So, if a person says “I love you” and then gives someone a gift, one can say that the statement “I love you” was true. But this doesn’t establish the truth with certainty, because someone may give a gift, but only with the intent of cheating the person at a later time. To solve this problem, we have to go slightly deeper—e.g., into the mental state. Is a person truly feeling the feelings of love while giving gifts and saying “I love you”? But what happens when they are feeling the love right now but will stop feeling the love later? How do we know that they are truly in love, not merely saying so due to feelings of lust? To solve this problem, we have to go to an even deeper level into their belief system, because differences of beliefs can lead to clashes subsequently, and that would then destroy their love. Once the compatibility between these beliefs is established, then we ask: Do they have the same goals? This is because differences of goals—even if they have the same beliefs—can destroy the love. Then, if they have the same goals, we must go to an even deeper level of their value system, because differences in values crop up over a much longer period of time, and can destroy the love. Ultimately, when we cross all these thresholds, we must ask the most fundamental question: Is the person selfish or unselfish? Is the person prepared to make the sacrifices over time—no matter how big those sacrifices are? Or are they going to say at some point in time: “This is too much for me, and I cannot sacrifice everything eternally”.
In this way, the truth of “I love you” is a very complicated problem, because whatever seems to be real may not truly be consistent with a deeper reality, and hence not true. It can be said to exist, and can be said to be meaningful, but because it disappears, it is not true. Thus, this process of deciding truth is simplified into a single conclusion: Whatever is true must be eternal.
Since everything in the material world is temporary, therefore, none of it is true. Yes, it exists for the moment. Yes, it is meaningful for the moment. But it is not true. Hence, the world is māyā.
Now, if you are feeling delighted at this conclusion of “truth is eternity”, save it for the moment. Because Māyāvāda has the same conclusion. Māyāvāda also says that the material world is an illusion because it is temporary, and Brahman is eternal, and therefore, it is the only truth. Therefore, whatever complicated reasoning for establishing the truth we went through before, can also be coopted by the Māyāvāda philosophy, and lead to the same conclusion—i.e., the world doesn’t exist. You might say that the world exists but is false in its claims, and the Māyāvāda philosopher can say that it doesn’t exist because it is not true, and that subtlety of distinction would be totally immaterial and irrelevant because the ultimate conclusion in both cases that the material world is māyā because it is temporary.
All Temporary Things are Not False
Now, to salvage the situation, we have to make an even deeper point, namely, that some temporary things are true. For example, if there is a book on true knowledge, it may not be eternal. The book may exist for some time, and then go out of publication, all the copies of the book may be destroyed over time, and the knowledge would cease to exist. Since that book ceases to exist, by the previous conclusion that “truth is eternal”, this book on true knowledge would also become false.
The solution to this problem is obviously that some temporary things are also true. Now, this is a big problem, because we earlier said that “whatever is true is eternal”. If we simply negate this statement, then we will get “all that is temporary is also false”, but we are not prepared to accept that. So, we need two seemingly contradictory statements: (a) truth is eternal, and (b) temporary can also be true.
How do we reconcile this conundrum? The answer is that we can do so if we draw a distinction between existence, meaning, and truth. The book’s existence can be temporary, but its meaning can be eternally true. Conversely, some books—e.g., books on fiction—can also have a temporary existence, and their meanings are eternally false. Then, some books—e.g., on political facts of a nation—can have a temporary existence, and their meanings can be temporarily true. So, now, when someone says that the world is temporary, we can agree. But we can disagree with the claim that everything in the world is false, since falsity or māyā is about the truth of the meaning, not merely the temporality. Accordingly, there can be things that are never true, sometimes true, and always true. This truth pertains to the meaning and not to the existence. Thus, if the Vedas ceased to exist, their knowledge doesn’t become false. It can still be eternal truth, because the truth pertains not to existence but only to the meaning.
The Radical Shift in Discourse
Thus, when we say that “truth is eternal” we don’t mean that it exists in this world eternally. It can appear or disappear, and if it disappears, then God and His devotees establish it again. But from the perspective of this world, the truth appears temporarily, even though it exists eternally. Thus, we draw a distinction between material existence (which is temporary) and spiritual existence (which is eternal).
But what is existence? Why does something that exist eternally only appear temporarily? This is when we have to say that all individual things are combination of two things—concepts and individuality. An individual table for instance is the combination of an idea (table) and an individuality. When the idea combines with the individuality, then the table appears (temporarily). But when the idea separates from the individual, then the table disappears. This is very radical because now the individual tables and chairs are not physical things; they are actually symbols of meaning—an idea and its instantiation.
Therefore, tables can also exist in the spiritual world, and hence they can be eternally true. And yet, tables exist in this world, and they are temporary. They are both ‘tables’—the idea is the same. But one is temporary and the other is eternal, because the individual and idea combination is temporary or permanent. A good example of this fact is the installation of a deity. The form of the deity is an idea, which has an eternal individual combined to the form in the spiritual world. When we form a deity out of a stone, then the same form exists in this world, although it has been instantiated temporarily. That temporary instance is the temporary advent of God in this world. Therefore, if you break the deity, you haven’t destroyed God. But if you worship the deity, then you are directly worshiping God.
If the material world was wholly an illusion, God’s deity would also be an illusion (this is indeed the position of Māyāvāda). But the nuanced understanding of māyā is that the material world is temporary and not completely false. There is also truth in this world—e.g., scriptures and deities are true. And their truth depends on the meaning of these things being true. That meaning in turn depends on a deeper meaning being true, and so on, until the deepest level meaning—which is self-evident—is true.
The radical shift in thinking is that what we call ‘matter’ is just temporary instantiation of temporary or eternal meaning, while what we call ‘spirit’ is the eternal instantiation of eternal meaning. It is not “stuff” or “substance”. If it were stuff or substance, then all of it would be temporary, and whatever is temporary would be considered false. If this whole world is false, then you can never know the truth, because books on truth could never be considered true—after all, these books are temporary.
So, the mere existence of true knowledge requires many things: (1) truth is about ideas, not about existence, (2) all existents must be instances of ideas, and (3) ideas can be temporary or eternal. Now, when you study the material world, you must think of everything as the instance of an idea. That instance is not important; the idea that the instance symbolizes is the most important thing.
The Material World is Text
All these conclusions are presented in Vedic philosophy in different forms. For example, the material world emanates from śabda-brahman, which is a primordial form of language; the world is just like books or texts created from language. Likewise, what we call ‘space’ has the property of sound with meaning; the meaning is in the mind, and the sound is the instance of meaning. So, when you see a table or a chair, it is not “stuff”. It is rather alphabets, words, and sentences that encode a description. When we perceive this description by our senses (which are also text), then an experience is created. Similarly, we can say that our experience is ‘meaning’ and the external reality is the ‘words’. The words are produced from meanings, and the meaning can be grasped from the words. Reality is text.
Now, what we call “space” is not the space of “stuff”. It is rather the space of meanings. Two things that are close in this space have similar meanings; the things that are far in this space have dissimilar meanings. Based on this, when two planets are far-off, it is because they are different meanings. When two planets are close, then they are similar meanings. This “semantic space” is not physical space. A new sense of distance and proximity is required to even understand proximity and distance.
With this, you can throw all of modern science out of the window. There is nothing called energy, mass, charge, momentum, etc. There is only text. There are no laws such as gravitation or electromagnetism; there are laws of meaning—e.g., new meaning is created by the combination of words. There is simply no determinism—because the combination of letters into words or sentences is based on a choice. When you make a combination, your choices must be responsible, so there is a law of karma. Thus, an alternative science of matter emerges, based on the idea that it is not things; it is rather text.
Māyā and God
So, what is māyā? It is the ability to create false stories as the worldly text. Not all text is false, however. The term māyā simply denotes all the text whose meanings are false. The text exists, although temporarily (just as the true text is temporary). The text is always meaningful (otherwise it would not be considered text). So, you cannot distinguish between reality and falsity based on existence or meaning. You must rather distinguish based upon the truth of the meaning. That truth requires the truth of a deeper meaning, which depends on the truth of an even deeper meaning, and so on. If any of these truth conditions break down, then the whole thing is false, and hence it can be called māyā.
Thus, the simple conclusion of Vedic texts is that all that is connected to God—i.e., based on the truth in God—is also true. And whatever negates any of the many levels of reality connected to God is māyā. If any of the truths emanated from God are negated, that negation of the truth is māyā. That negation also exists—for example, we can say that “sky is not blue” and the sentence exists. But you cannot say that it is true merely because it exists. You have to trace its connection to the deepest truth—God. In this way, God is truth, and māyā is simply the negation of that truth, which also exists but is false.
Thus, when God appears in this world, that form of God is not māyā, because it is not the negation of God. Likewise, when books about God are written, they are not māyā, even if they are temporary. And the jīvana-mukta person, who is devoted to God, is not māyā, even though he has a short lifespan. The deity of the Lord is not māyā, even though it appears and disappears at a certain point in time. Establishing the above truths itself requires changing our conception of matter completely.
The External and Internal Energies
In the book Six Causes, this notion of māyā is discussed at length, and māyā is described to be the negation of God. God is the original truth, and He expands into many subsidiary truths. One of these expansions is what God is not. And then there are many subsidiary expansions of what God is not. The expansions of truth are expanded from God’s pleasure, and the expansions of falsity are produced from God’s austerity. The Mahā Viṣṇu form of God creates the material world by performing austerities, or tapasya. Thus, He is not happy creating the world, and yet, austerity is also a form of enjoyment.
The world that is created from austerity is called the “external energy” of God. Why is it external? It is so because it is what God is not. This negation of God is thus also called māyā, or that which is not (God). Likewise, the world that is created from pleasure is called the “internal energy” of God. Why is it internal? It is so because it is what God is. And yet, this world is also called yoga-māyā which perplexes many people: Is it also an illusion? The answer is yes and no. God has no father or mother, but He has the desire for a father and a mother; to fulfill this desire, the “illusion” of a father and a mother is created. Likewise, God has no brother or sister, but He has the desire for a brother and a sister; so, to fulfill this desire, a brother and a sister are manifest. God has no equal, but He has the desire for friendships; so, to fulfill this desire, many friends of God are manifest. They are all “illusion” but they are also real.
In what sense are they real? The answer is that they create greater happiness. When illusion is happier, then it is considered truth—provided that illusion is eternal. So, at some point in philosophy, we defer the considerations of truth to whatever creates greater and eternal happiness. If illusion creates greater happiness, then it is also the greater truth! But we come to this point after rejecting material illusion because it is not only illusory, but also temporary. Eternal illusion, if it is happier, it is also truer.
Māyā vs. Māyāvāda
In this way, the refutation of Māyāvāda requires a sophisticated understanding of what we mean by māyā, the textual or symbolic nature of the material world, the distinction between existence, meaning, and truth in these symbols, and the differences between the eternality of existence, meaning, and truth.
If this sophisticated understanding is missing, then the rejection of Māyāvāda is the rejection of māyā, and the person becomes entrapped in the enjoyment of the falsities of this world—after all, if Māyāvāda is false, then this world is real, whatever exists in this world must also be true. As more and more of this world is accepted as true, the statements like “I love you” are believed to be true just because they exist. So, one must be very careful. The simple-minded rejection of Māyāvāda means that one falls into māyā. And the adoption of Māyāvāda makes one detached from this world, but leads to the rejection of transcendental reality. There are dangers in both blind acceptance and rejection of Māyāvāda.
The philosophy of Māyāvāda and māyā is thus not merely for satisfying an intellectual curiosity. A good understanding of this philosophy leads to detachment from the material world and the success of the spiritual pursuits. Absence of this understanding either means that one keeps wallowing in the false faith in the material world, or rejects the truth of the transcendental world. Both are dangerous.