Me, Myself and Maya

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

There is nothing like your silence and my silence. Silence is the same everywhere when it is free from all disturbances. Jayaram V

There is nothing like your space and my space. The space in all and around all is the same space. Whether you live or die, it does not change. Jayaram V


Advaita is difficult to understand, not because it is a complicated philosophy. To know it with some clarity, you need a paradigm shift in your thinking and perspective. You may study its philosophy and develop an understanding. However, it is still possible to have misconceptions and misunderstandings about it. At least, it is my experience. When you study the Advaita, in the early days of your journey into spirituality, you will have difficulty in assimilating the idea that the world is an illusion (Maya) and unreal. You may wonder how the world could be an illusion when it seems so real. Despite the skepticism, you may also develop your own justification for your own satisfaction and rationalize why it is unreal. Such early struggles are not uncommon for the students of Advaita as they try to assimilate its comprehensive philosophy into their worldviews.

I had a few of such problems when I began studying the philosophy. I wondered why Adi Shankaracharya, a great proponent of the Advaita School, worshipped numerous gods and goddesses and composed so many ritual prayers, when he was supposed to worship only Brahman. Was not he worshipping Maya, rather than Brahman? Why did he visit those Shakti temples and install there peace yantras to pacify the fierce goddesses when he knew that they were temporary formations in the space of Brahman? By worshipping so many deities and writing profusely about them, was he not advocating polytheism, while at the same time he was preaching the Advaita notion that Brahman alone was real? Were there more Shankaracharyas than one? Those questions baffled me, as I did not find any satisfactory answers.

A popular spiritual teacher once asked me which school of Hinduism did I follow. I told her that I had difficulty understanding and resolving the concepts of Advaita, whereas I was more comfortable with Dvaita (dualism) since it seemed real and very earthly. I explained that it was easier for the human mind to settle with relational objectivism in duality rather than becoming fixed in the idea of subjective nondualism. I went on to explain the difficulty I had with the school of Vishistadvaita (qualified nondualism) because it would settle neither for Brahman nor for the souls but stand in somewhere between, with its bheda-abheda (different but not different) approach, advocating devotional theism for liberation.

My dilemma was how could you practice devotion to an image or a deity when your mind would not settle with either difference or non-difference? Hinduism was already a confusing theology to practice, as the anxious and thirsty mind would not easily settle with one deity and one belief system, and those schools caused more confusion and distraction with their philosophical complexities than all religions put together, which were decidedly dualistic. From a devotional perspective, Dvaita seemed right.

The teacher to whom I spoke listened my arguments with patience, but still suggested that I should return to Advaita and spend more time studying it because it was the whole point. My confusion or ignorance was why I should pursue it. She did not try to convince me about the virtues of Advaita, but assuredly said that someday I would find my own answers and make peace with it. It would be an indication that I crossed a major hurdle.

After several years, I believe I made some progress, although I still consider myself a student of Advaita, and I am still trying to make peace with it. I believe I am moving towards the truth. It is similar to what happens to you when you wake up. Your eyes gradually adjust to the light and see things through bleariness, as your mind wakes up to the current reality. It takes time to understand Advaita, and most likely it culminates with a sudden shift in your awareness. One thing is certain about Advaita. It is not for diehard rational people, who want a proof of everything and who expect every truth to be validated by conventional logic and empirical wisdom.

To understand Advaita, you have to set aside logic and develop a comprehensive vision of the universe. Logic will still be required, to make sense of its basic principles. Surely, you cannot understand Advaita if you are caught up in your own world and cannot see beyond your limited view. You have to stretch your imagination and overcome your small identities and narrow-mindedness (kshudra chitta). In their lives, people assume many identities such as those which arise from their castes, family names, regions, languages, nations, religions, teacher traditions, and others. They have to renounce them with the precision and patience of a monk who shaves off his head, eyebrows, and moustache before his initiation into a monastery.

To understand Advaita, you have to go far beyond the superficial identities that arise from your birth, status, or profession to cultivate the universal identity. You must feel oneness with the universe, without any boundaries and distinctions, and see everything the way the universe sees. You may not be able to sustain that consciousness for long, but the experience of a few moments is also worth cherishing. You will be astonished to see how love without an object and purpose can spontaneously arise in you for everything and overwhelm you. Even for that to happen, you have to assimilate deeply the ideas of Advaita in your mind through study, affirmations, remembrance and contemplation. In this regard, I suggest to review the following four statements, which are worth examining. They are useful to develop the comprehensive vision which is required to understand its essential philosophy.

Reality is one

Reality is one, although perceptually it may appear to be made of numerous things. You must accept this statement as an absolute truth and fully surrender to it, without judgment and doubt. I repeat again. You must railroad this idea deep into your mind, even if you have your own doubts, and even if your reason or commonsense tells you otherwise. If you persist in that thought, at some stage in your life you may really see it becoming very real.

Believing in that idea is very important. You must let that idea seep in and become settled. Keep remembering that everything you see around you is one reality and that is Brahman, or the Supreme Self. See as far as you can the unity of all existence both within you and outside you, acknowledging that you are not a mere individual who is made of mind and body, but the universal, eternal Self. Unless it gets into the root of your thinking and becomes an unquestionable fact of your consciousness, you cannot practice Advaita or believe in it, and you may continue to have doubts and questions about it. Remember that Advaita begins as an idea and ends up as a reality if you nurture it and make it an integral part of your consciousness. (It was what the teacher was telling me, and I did not realize it then).

If you persist in the thought, I assure you that you will see the world as one. You will cease hating people, choosing particular people, and preferring things and the dualities of life. You will stop resisting, defending, and securing your interests against the flow of life and make peace with the whole world. Further, as you find yourself in all and feel unity with them, you will also start experiencing unconditional love and compassion for everything, without desires and expectations. Such moments may not last forever, but they will keep knocking strongly on the veil of your conventional wisdom and worldly thinking and make enough holes in it for the light of higher wisdom and awareness to seep through. If you persist, it will pave the way for the emergence of divine mind and an expansive vision in you, which will help you experience life with sameness and tranquility.

All life is sacred

This is directly related to the previous idea. If Brahman is everything and the only reality, it logically follows that everything in you and around you is also equally sacred. You cannot say that your heart is sacred and your hands are not. You cannot say that only the temple you visit is sacred, but not the farmland that is by its side, or that your house is great and your neighbor's house is not because it is not well maintained. You stop measuring the world with petty morals and relative values as you realize that all are shadows of the same reality and that life is universally sacred, not just yours or of someone you love. All aspects of your reality, the earth, planets, stars, the sun, the moon, elements, worlds, mountains, trees, rivers, plants, flowers, birds, and animals, they are all sacred.

It is not true that you have to worship God only in temples or religious places, but not elsewhere. It is not true that you will find God only in a particular place. Everything is God. Everything is made up of God and enveloped by God. Hence, everything is sacred and worthy of respect and reverence. It is why in Hinduism we have a rich mythology, why we see God in numerous objects, and why we worship innumerable gods. People may laugh at us, but in truth we are the true worshippers of God. We bring the invisible, eternal, universal God to life and into our little world in meaningful forms so that we can experience our oneness with him. We find him in everything, and we worship him everywhere. In no other religion living forms are treated with such respect as in Hinduism. Nowhere else will you see a whole geographical area being worshipped by people as a living goddess. When a Vedic priest performs a ritual, making offerings to gods, humans, animals, ancestors and others he is but expressing his reverence to the unity and sanctity of life.

For the same reason the practice of sameness is suggested in our spiritual practice. Ordinary people are prone to likes and dislikes, or attraction and aversion. If all life is sacred, it logically follows that you have to treat everything with the same respect and reverence. If you are firmly established in Advaita, the thoughts of God never desert you. You see God in everything, in the food you eat, in the people you meet, in the animals and object you see, in the people who approach you for alms, and in the whole wide world. With that arise in you the feelings of friendliness towards the whole creation, which the Buddha called sacred friendliness (kalyana mitrata). It is the source of true compassion, nonviolence, unconditional love, peace, non-covetousness, and egolessnesss. Any other approach to practice them will not be as effective.

You can worship gods and have devotion for them

Again this is also directly related to the previous two statements. If everything is Brahman and all life is sacred, then everything that you see and experience in life becomes sacred and worthy of respect, reverence and worship. There is no need for you to travel a thousand miles to worship a deity in a cave or on the banks of a river. There is no need for you to go to a sacred river on an auspicious day to take a dip to earn merit. If you want, you can do it, but it is not necessary because God is everywhere.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa found the Mother Goddess in a very ordinary temple in a small village on the banks of the River Ganga. We learn from the story of Prahlada that God exists everywhere and shows up if you call him. Through his devotion and faith, Prahlada showed his father that God could manifest even from the pillar of a palace. These stories prove that everything around you is sacred and infused with the presence of God. It is also true that if you persist and cultivate the vision of seeing God everywhere, you will find him everywhere, and in whatever object that catches your attention. Hindu ascetics renounce worldly life and make the world their home. They renounce egoistic effort and ownership, and stop worrying about their lives and comforts, because they believe that they are living in God, and he would take care of them.

It also explains why Shankaracharya wrote devotional poems and worshipped many gods and goddesses. He saw Brahman in them and worshipped them with the same reverence. He saw everything around him as sacred. As he traveled throughout India, he probably saw the oneness of reality and the sanctity of life. You may visit temples to offer your prayers, or you can make your whole life a continuous offering. For the same reason Hindus worship not only gods but also parents, elders, teachers, spiritual masters, seers, and demigods. They believe that the same universal God is present everywhere, and everything is worthy of worship, acknowledging that both God and his creation, even if it is a dream, are equally sacred and filled with his light and intelligence.

Duality is the delusion

Advaita suggests that people are subject to moham, or delusion. Moham is a mental condition characterized by confusion, lack of clarity, ignorance, and mistaken notions. It makes people see things perversely, incorrectly, or exaggeratedly whereby the truth of their perception is lost. Delusion manifests variously in human beings. For example, accepting the mind and body as your true identity is a delusion, or not knowing the Self as your reality or identity. A child sees the moon and thinks it is a plaything. It is a delusion, although the child is not aware of it.

We are subject to several types of delusions such as the delusion that world is different from you or outside you, that you can have a relationship or ownership with the world and its things, that your ego is the true Self, that you can be selective about things and actions for your happiness, that having things will make you happy, that sexual love is true love, that death is the end of all, that you are a mere human being or an individual, and so on. All these delusions add to your suffering as they create in you numerous, emotional and mental disturbances and keep you in a state of seeking, striving and anxiety. They are also responsible for your karma, as you lack discretion and make wrong choices, which result in suffering and bondage.

Of all the delusions, the most powerful one is the delusion of duality. It is responsible for most of the mistaken notions that arise in the mind. Delusion of duality means holding the wrong belief that you are different from the world, that the world is different from God, that your body is different from you, that you are different from the Self, or that you are different from others. When you see otherness in things, you will experience desires and the need for attachments and relationships. When you are deluded, you see the world as black and white, as categories, classes and divisions, as conflicts and hostilities. You will also treat God as an object rather than you. You will worship him and seek favors from him. In delusion you see the diversity but not its underlying oneness or unity. All of it creates a great emotional drama in your life as you struggle to protect yourself from the world and secure for yourself things at the expense of others.

Advaita teaches that the experience of duality is in itself a delusion, because in reality there is neither the subject nor the object but the Self alone. Nothing is separate from anything. All is one reality. You see diversity because you learned to see it that way. It is a conceptual distortion, and an error in learning and conditioning. All is Brahman, the Supreme Self. All is one. It is the same Self that appears in many and appears as many for its own enjoyment. Brahman is not different from his creation. Whatever separation you experience is because you are subject to Maya or illusion. It makes you see the reality of Brahman in fragments, whereby you become deluded and lose the larger picture or the singular reality.

Advaita teaches you to see the world as not this or that, but as a continuous reality and ignore any apparent divisions and duality that you may perceive with your senses. It is why to practice Advaita you must set aside your rationality and logical thinking and learn to see the whole existence, including you and everything else, as one, setting aside the duality of this and that. When you accept, without resistance, that the whole existence is one, which appears numerously, like the waves in an ocean or the ripples in a pond, you develop the universal vision and understand the true merits of Advaita.

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