‘Neither freedom from sorrow nor realization of one's Real nature is possible, as long as the conviction does not arise in one that the world-appearance is unreal.’
Yoga Vasistha (l.i.)
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi pointed out on numerous occasions, in Talks, the Forty Verses on Reality, and the Garland of Guru's Sayings, that while we believe the world to be Real, we will have the very greatest difficulty in awakening. This is because we are so identified with the apparent reality of a world which is in actuality a sensorial illusion.
In practice, according to Advaita Vedanta philosophy, as propounded by the great Adi Shankara and Ramana Maharshi, the world should be seen and regarded merely as an appearance in Reality, not the Reality itself. The Vedantic definition of Reality is that it is unchanging, eternal, immutable, unperishing and constant. As everything we see and perceive through the senses is in constant change, and decays and dies at some time or another, it cannot claim the definition of Reality.
Modem science and sceptical Western philosophy both testify to the fact that what we see is only a surface appearance, an interpretation relative to our sensory apparatus and mental perceptions. The famous 'philosopher's table' is only a word. In reality it is composed of trillions of atoms, electrons, neutrons, quarks, unconditioned energy and relatively vast space. Although there is a substratum of our Consciousness which may claim to be Real, our recognition through sight and touch is a sensual response. We see brownness, and feel hardness, and because of a known conditioned idea of its function and name, we merrily call it a 'table'.
In Reality it is nothing, or no thing. Vedanta broadly agrees with Idealistic and Sceptical philosophy that the world we see and experience is of the nature of a dream created individually by our five senses. Every animal and insect likewise creates a world, instinctively, of colour, form, smell, taste and touch. So does egotistic man. The book Maha Yoga by ‘Who’ also deals impressively and adequately with this question.
The empiric 'I' thought needs to adjust to a sensory world of its own making. It becomes convinced by a world that responds adequately to its own criteria of reality - those of its own mental operation and sense data. It is likewise convinced by relationships between similar persons and objects. Other 'dreamers' confirm our illusion. In fact we are living in an appearance that our own senses have projected onto Consciousness. We are manipulated by the force of circumstances. This force is ‘consciously’ directed, but not by ourselves. Though we imagine we are the ‘doers’, in fact we only react.
The empiric ‘I’ thought compounds this error of a false appearance, a sensorial mirage, and identifies mentally – i.e. intellectually and emotionally – with the sense impressions received. The memory in the brain stores, sorts and collates impressions which add to associative recognition, judgment and opinion.
From the standpoint of the awakened jnani, the world may be regarded as Real only insofar as it is an appearance in Brahman, in Consciousness, awareness, pure intelligence, love, bliss, the Absolute Reality. From the standpoint of the ignorant unawakened one, or ajnani, the world should be regarded as unreal, as a dream, in order to weaken that hypnotic identification and psychotic reaction to its appearance, which keep us asleep. The total practice and theory of the teaching is directed towards this aim, to release us from our suffering.
In Reality nothing or no thing is born, dies or is caused. There is a passing pageant in consciousness-awareness. Each object according to Vedanta has a temporary and preordained frame of existence before it is transmuted. This includes the soul or jiva. To awaken, we have to disentangle the ‘I’ thought from its identification with the mental appearance. The empiric ‘I’ has its value and importance, or else we could not live tolerably in this spiritual gymnasium. But its belief in the world as Real, and that it can ‘do’ things in it, dominates us. Man is deceived by his apparent freedom of movement, when his every action is manipulated by circumstances.
If we meditate on the philosophic truth of Advaita Vedanta, or read some mainstream contemporary philosophers of science – such as Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilbur, whose works are recommended in this connection – this helps to weaken the intellectual and emotional grip of our state of 'sleep'. If we dive into the Heart as a constant practice, the power of the empiric ‘I’ thought is gradually weakened from its false identification. We come to perceive directly that the world is a Divine ‘lila’ or sportive exuberant play, based on Love. We realize that the world is an appearance in the Reality of Consciousness, not Reality itself. In effect, everything is no thing, uncreated, and nothing Really happens, any more than in the dream I have at night.
It is our challenge to awaken from this hypnotic trance and transcend the illusory appearance. It is our discovery to live in the Reality of the Self, with the empiric ‘I’ as a good servant, not the narcissistic master of the house.
In the words of Bhagavan:
Q: So the world is not really illusory?
Bhagavan: At the level of the spiritual seeker you have got to say that the world is an illusion. There is no other way. When a man forgets that he is Brahman, who is real, permanent and omnipresent, and deludes himself into thinking that he is a body in the universe which is filled with bodies that are transitory, and labours under that delusion, you have got to remind him that the world is unreal and a delusion. Why? Because his vision which has forgotten its own Self, is dwelling in the external, material universe. It will not turn inwards into introspection unless you impress on him that all this external, material universe is unreal. When once he realizes his own Self, he will know that there is nothing other than his own Self, and he will come to look upon the whole universe as Brahman.
There is no universe without the Self. So long as a man does not see the Self which is the origin of all, but looks only at the external world as real and permanent, you have to tell him that all this external universe is an illusion. You cannot help it. Take a paper. We see only the script, and nobody notices the paper on which the script is written. The paper is there whether the script is written. The paper is there whether the script on it is there or not. To those who look upon the script as real, you have to say that it is unreal, no illusion, since it rests upon the paper. The wise man looks upon both the paper and the script as one. So also with Brahman and the universe.
from Be As You Are, ed.David Godman, p.187
Letters from Ramanasramam, Suri Nagamma, p.94