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Monday, March 9, 2015

Maya: Illusion and Reality (Mahabharata Notes #14)

At least one of the meanings of maya is simply "illusion." In the battle scenes in Mahabharata, maya is often a supernatural weapon used by a few characters to create a distortion of reality --- fog, rain, cold, darkness, demonic figures, etc., that do not actually exist --- to disarm the enemy and create fear and chaos. In fact it sounds a lot like some sort of psychological warfare.

Yet maya is far more complicated than illusion. Its entry in Wikipedia seems to suggest that the evolution of its meaning, coupled with atman, is linked to the pair purusha and prakrti. Yeah, Wikipedia. Obviously I have not read through the relevant vedas and puranas and upanishads to begin to understand these ideas. But, at least, my absurdly superficial glimpse at these abstract concepts is enough to demonstrate how sophisticated the philosophical theories were in Hinduism.

Anyway, not being qualified to discuss these concepts does not deter me from contemplating something along these lines. At some point, maya came to mean the material, external existence, ie, the body or prakrti, that houses and conceals the eternal driving force of life or spirit, ie, the soul or purusha. The theory is that, although the body and its senses seem to be real, they are temporary and constantly changing and subject to inevitable decay. Here, obviously, the Hindu philosophers incorporated time into their observation of the physical world --- All senses pass, including agony and ecstasy, and therefore are elusive over time. Even life itself passes so quickly. Therefore, the need for a life force that permeates the universe and animates things that cannot disappear or diminish is irresistible. And they are not wrong, because energy does fit the concept of purusha and obeys the first law of thermodynamics.

Nevertheless I have been thinking of something that seems to be the opposite: One's perception and thoughts are subjective, conjured by the mind, and unreal, but the body at least somewhat able to get a more concrete and reliable picture of the world around oneself through the senses. Another way of looking at the distinction between the real and unreal is what is actually going on within one's senses and what is not. For example, the room temperature is 75 F and the time is night and I am lying on the couch typing on my laptop --- that's tangible reality. I'm thinking about the work to do tomorrow and reading some babbling on Twitter --- that's not tangible reality, even if the babbling might be someone else's reality. The novel I'm reading is all in my mind, and so is the contemplation of whether I will finish a couple of documents by the end of next week, because none of these exists outside of the electrochemical reactions in my brain. On the other hand, that I am thirsty or hungry is real enough, for the sensations are connected to my blood concentrations of sodium or glucose, not just in the brain. How real is reading fiction, nonfiction, news, and someone else's opinions and editorials?


So lately I have begun to wonder how much time I spend in reality versus in the imagined world of the mind. When I send emails to family, friends, colleagues, or customers, is it real, semi-real, or unreal? When vague thoughts float into my head from time to time (eg, "Am I doing the right thing? Am I worthy? Am I a good person?" "What the heck is maya?" "I would rather be skating than working."), are they real? (Probably not.)

No, I am not saying that tangible reality is superior to the reality in the mind, or that maya is better than atman or vice versa (not that I actually get it --- where are Indian friends when you need one?!). I am simply curious about the distinction between what's inside and outside of the mind, which is not as simple as it looks, because even the most tangible reality in our immediately environment has to be processed and perceived by the brain. Whether something is real can be as basic as "Is it hot or cold?" to "Is that guy looking at me or just staring into space?" 

I realize that this train of thoughts and its connection to Hinduism are not an accident, because it was probably originated from the fashionable practice in psychology of "mindfulness." Mindfulness is connected to meditation, and where did meditation come from, eh? Anyway, I wonder if it's ever possible for anyone to stay mindful in the present for more than 5% of the day. I have seen at least one study that found people daydream >90% of the time. The only time I do not daydream is when I am doing something taxing the mind, like, working, writing nonwork stuff, or skating!

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