There is much confusion about concepts like Maya, the illusory nature of our waking experience. There are many who reject the Advaita claim about the illusory nature of the universe and the waking state. They don’t like the claim that the waking state is like a dream. Moreover there is a widespread belief that any spiritual aspirant can reach the Absolute or become a Jivanmukta. The following article tries to clarify some of these matters.
What does Advaita Vedanta mean by Maya which is popularly translated as illusion?
.. it is necessary to say what Mayavadins, mistakenly called illusionists, mean by the expression maya. They think that the real and unreal are not contradictory terms, but only contraries with a middle ground between them. At one end stands the absolutely unreal or fictitious entities like ‘horn of a hare’ and the ‘son of a barren woman’. These are mere words, without any reality. At the other end stands Brahman, the absolutely real, which can never be negated by anything. Between these two extremes, there are two levels, forming a middle ground, as it were, which thought cannot exclusively classify with either of them.
The first of these two middle categories is the experiences of the dream, and those caused by errors of perception…. At the time of perception these phenomena appear absolutely real, and therefore, as far as the perceiver is concerned, for the moment, the experienced objects are there. But when the error is dispelled by right knowledge the illusion disappears totally, or even if the appearance of it persists owing to a combination of circumstances, it no longer deceives the perceiver…
The second of these intermediate categories is the phenomenal world which we experience in our working life, and which, after all, causes us all the problems of philosophy and religion. The school of thought [Advaita Vedanta].. tries to understand it also on the analogy of the erroneous perceptions described above. But it would be wrong to state that they put it on a par with them. What they contend is that there have been men who have experienced an awakening corresponding to the disillusionment from illusory perceptions. It is an awakening into a wider consciousness, on gaining which – and it is then and then alone – the phenomenal world is recognized to be on a par with experience of illusory perceptions, i.e. it either disappears completely or, if it continues to be perceived, it is no longer felt to be, in itself, of any reality or value.
Sri Ramakrishna’s thoughts in a Vedantic perspective by Swami Tapasyananda
A schematic picture of the different states
——————————– Waking State
——————————– Dream Sate
——————————–Absolutely unreal or fictitious state
Advaita Vedanta is not saying that the waking state is the same as the dream state. For us who have never realized the Absolute the waking state is certainly real and different from the dream state. However, the jivanmukta, one who has realized the Absolute, classifies the waking state also on par with the dream state. What is meant is that just as the dream state gives rise to illusory perception when compared to the waking state, the perceptions of the waking state are found not to be the ultimate truth when compared to the experience of the Absolute.
What is the experience of the Absolute like?
What is the experience of the Jivanmukta? If we could know about that experience then we will have some idea about the reason for the demotion of the waking state. While it is not possible to give a complete description of such an experience there is some literature which gives glimpses of that experience.
As he read in college the rationalistic Western philosophers of the nineteenth century, his boyhood faith in God and religion was unsettled. He would not accept religion on mere faith; he wanted demonstration of God. But very soon his passionate nature discovered that mere Universal Reason was cold and bloodless. His emotional nature, dissatisfied with a mere abstraction, required a concrete support to help him in the hours of temptation. He wanted an external power, a guru, who by embodying perfection in the flesh would still the commotion of his soul. Attracted by the magnetic personality of Keshab, he joined the Brahmo Samaj and became a singer in its choir. But in the Samaj he did not find the guru who could say that he had seen God.
In a state of mental conflict and torture of soul, Narendra came to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. He was then eighteen years of age and had been in college two years. He entered the Master’s room accompanied by some light-hearted friends. At Sri Ramakrishna’s request he sang a few songs, pouring his whole soul into them, and the Master went into samadhi. A few minutes later Sri Ramakrishna suddenly left his seat, took Narendra by the hand, and led him to the screened verandah north of his room. They were alone. Addressing Narendra most tenderly, as if he were a friend of long acquaintance, the Master said: “Ah! You have come very late. Why have you been so unkind as to make me wait all these days? My ears are tired of hearing the futile words of worldly men. Oh, how I have longed to pour my spirit into the heart of someone fitted to receive my message!” He talked thus, sobbing all the time. Then, standing before Narendra with folded hands, he addressed him as Narayana, born on earth to remove the misery of humanity. Grasping Narendra’s hand, he asked him to come again, alone, and very soon. Narendra was startled. “What is this I have come to see?” he said to himself. “He must be stark mad. Why, I am the son of Viswanath Dutta. How dare he speak this way to me?”
When they returned to the room and Narendra heard the Master speaking to others, he was surprised to find in his words an inner logic, a striking sincerity, and a convincing proof of his spiritual nature. In answer to Narendra’s question, “Sir, have you seen God?” the Master said: “Yes, I have seen God. I have seen Him more tangibly than I see you. I have talked to Him more intimately than I am talking to you.” Continuing, the Master said: “But, my child, who wants to see God? People shed jugs of tears for money, wife, and children. But if they would weep for God for only one day they would surely see Him.” Narendra was amazed. These words he could not doubt. This was the first time he had ever heard a man saying that he had seen God. But he could not reconcile these words of the Master with the scene that had taken place on the verandah only a few minutes before. He concluded that Sri Ramakrishna was a monomaniac, and returned home rather puzzled in mind.
During his second visit, about a month later, suddenly, at the touch of the Master, Narendra felt overwhelmed and saw the walls of the room and everything around him whirling and vanishing. “What are you doing to me?” he cried in terror. “I have my father and mother at home.” He saw his own ego and the whole universe almost swallowed in a nameless void. With a laugh the Master easily restored him. Narendra thought he might have been hypnotized, but he could not understand how a monomaniac could cast a spell over the mind of a strong person like himself. He returned home more confused than ever, resolved to be henceforth on his guard before this strange man.
But during his third visit Narendra fared no better. This time, at the Master’s touch, he lost consciousness entirely. While he was still in that state, Sri Ramakrishna questioned him concerning his spiritual antecedents and whereabouts, his mission in this world, and the duration of his mortal life. The answers confirmed what the Master himself had known and inferred. Among other things, he came to know that Narendra was a sage who had already attained perfection, and that the day he learnt his real nature he would give up his body in yoga, by an act of will.
A few more meetings completely removed from Narendra’s mind the last traces of the notion that Sri Ramakrishna might be a monomaniac or wily hypnotist. His integrity, purity, renunciation, and unselfishness were beyond question. But Narendra could not accept a man, an imperfect mortal, as his guru. As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, he could not believe that a human intermediary was necessary between man and God. Moreover, he openly laughed at Sri Ramakrishna’s visions as hallucinations. Yet in the secret chamber of his heart he bore a great love for the Master.
Sri Ramakrishna was grateful to the Divine Mother for sending him one who doubted his own realizations. Often he asked Narendra to test him as the money-changers test their coins. He laughed at Narendra’s biting criticism of his spiritual experiences and samadhi. When at times Narendra’s sharp words distressed him, the Divine Mother Herself would console him, saying: “Why do you listen to him? In a few days he will believe your every word.” He could hardly bear Narendra’s absences. Often he would weep bitterly for the sight of him. Sometimes Narendra would find the Master’s love embarrassing; and one day he sharply scolded him, warning him that such infatuation would soon draw him down to the level of its object. The Master was distressed and prayed to the Divine Mother. Then he said to Narendra: “You rogue, I won’t listen to you any more. Mother says that I love you because I see God in you, and the day I no longer see God in you I shall not be able to bear even the sight of you.”
The Master wanted to train Narendra in the teachings of the non-dualistic Vedanta philosophy. But Narendra, because of his Brahmo upbringing, considered it wholly blasphemous to look on man as one with his Creator. One day at the temple garden he laughingly said to a friend: “How silly! This jug is God! This cup is God! Whatever we see is God! And we too are God! Nothing could be more absurd.” Sri Ramakrishna came out of his room and gently touched him. Spellbound, he immediately perceived that everything in the world was indeed God. A new universe opened around him. Returning home in a dazed state, he found there too that the food, the plate, the eater himself, the people around him, were all God. When he walked in the street, he saw that the cabs, the horses, the streams of people, the buildings, were all Brahman. He could hardly go about his day’s business. His parents became anxious about him and thought him ill. And when the intensity of the experience abated a little, he saw the world as a dream. Walking in the public square, he would strike his head against the iron railings to know whether they were real. It took him a number of days to recover his normal self. He had a foretaste of the great experiences yet to come and realized that the words of the Vedanta were true.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Introduction, Narendra, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
Advaita Vedanta tries to distinguish the kind of experiences described above from the waking state when they classify the waking state as also dream like. Advaita philosophers have tried to synthesize the experience of the Jivanmukta with the ordinary experiences of the Jiva by introducing the concept of maya.
Is it possible for an ordinary Jiva to have this experience and become a Jivanmukta?
There is widespread belief that any sincere spiritual aspirant can become a Jivanmukta. As we shall see that is not the case.
“When the Kundalini rises to the Sahasrara and the mind goes into samadhi, the aspirant loses all consciousness of the outer world. He can no longer retain his physical body. If milk is poured into his mouth, it runs out again. In that state the life-breath lingers for twenty-one days and then passes out. Entering the ‘black waters’ of the ocean, the ship never comes back. But the Isvarakotis, such as the Incarnations of God, can come down from this state of samadhi. They can descend from this exalted state because they like to live in the company of devotees and enjoy the love of God. God retains in them the ‘ego of Knowledge’ or the ‘ego of Devotion’ so that they may teach men. Their minds move between the sixth and the seventh planes. They run a boat-race back and forth, as it were, between these two planes.
“After attaining samadhi some souls of their own accord keep the ‘ego of Knowledge’. But that ego does not create any attachment. It is like a line drawn on the water.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Festival at Adhar’s House, Sunday, August 3, 1884 translated by Swami Nikhilananda
Only persons who have the potential to be teachers of men will have the experience of the Absolute and still live. This idea is also supported in Hindu spiritual literature.
Three levels of Nirvikalpa Experience
————————————————- Third Level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi
————————————————- Second level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi
————————————————- Lowest level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi
Sri Madhusudan Saraswati has stated in his commentary on the Gita, known as Gitartha Deepika, that there are three levels of experience in Nirvikalpa Samadhi. A person who has reached the lowest level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi can come out of the Samadhi on his own. A person who has reached the second level needs the help of another person to come out of Samadhi. It is not possible for a jiva to come out of the third level of Samadhi. This suggests that Sri Ramakrishna meant the third level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi when he stated that an ordinary Jiva would die if he gained the experience of the Absolute.
More posts by this author:
- Who is right, Sankaracharya or Ramanuja?
- Some difficult questions answered about Brahman and Advaita
- The illusory universe and its purpose
- Experiences on the way to moksha
- OM and its significance
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.