126 Sankara analyses cases of illusion

Why is it that the Gītā so often puts the texts of the two paths close together? It is because ordinary experience is based on a sort of illusion.

Some of the classical examples of this kind of illusion are outside our normal experience, and make no impact on a Western reader. In India, to ‘see’ a snake where there is only a rope can give quite a little shock, and to an Indian the example is telling.

But many Western people have never seen a snake outside the Zoo. As Indians say humorously: ‘If you saw a snake, you would call the police!’ Since, then, we never see snakes, we do not see illusory snakes either.

I realized this when with a friend I was looking for something in a London flat. I whisked open the door of a big wall cupboard. It happened that a thick black belt, kept on the top shelf, had fallen down, and one end of it must have got caught on the little bolt inside the cupboard door. The effect was, that when I quickly pulled open the door, this black sinuous length came shooting out on to the floor. Having had a couple of snake experiences in a house in India, I reacted quickly. My eyes told me: ‘Snake!’ I saw a snake, and jumped back. But my companion stood there calmly as the belt came to rest by his feet; he told me afterwards that he wondered what it was, but it never occurred to him that it was alive. He saw no snake.

Śaṅkara analyses such a case of illusion: it is the appearance, as a living sense-experience, of a memory of a real snake seen previously somewhere else, and now projected on to something similar. A common form of this illusion in India used to be that a man is walking along in the dusk, swinging a lantern: he sees a snake lying on the ground to one side. It is moving a little: he knows it is a snake. He has a fright and cautiously retreats (cautiously because snakes often move about in pairs). Then a friend sees him and calls out: ‘It’s all right; that’s a rope. It just dropped off the cart and I was coming back for it.’ He carefully goes near, and finds it is indeed a rope. Its apparent movement had been a reflection of his own movement; the shadow of the rope was moving because it was cast by his own moving lantern.

The illusion, though unreal, has effect. Śaṅkara remarks in his great commentary on the Brahma Sūtra-s that sometimes an imaginary poison can kill a man. A doctor in Malaya described in his memoirs how he was called out to a plantation to treat a snake-bite. A planter had come back home, rather drunk, and flung himself fully dressed on to his bed. He felt a convulsion beneath him, jumped up in a panic, and found that the crash of his body had killed a snake which had crept in between the sheets. It was still moving in the death convulsions. In the confusion, the planter had scratched his arm on a splinter of the wooden bed frame, but he got the idea that the snake had bitten him before it died. By the time the doctor arrived, the cut seemed to be inflamed, and the man was sweating with pain. The doctor saw at once that this was no snake-bite, but knew that his patient was in no condition to listen – the pain was proof enough that the snake had injected some poison. The doctor wrote in the memoir that he knew from experience that such a belief could cause very serious symptoms. He therefore immediately treated the injury as a snake-bite, and remarked after a minute: ‘You’re lucky: he only just got in a scratch. He’d no time to chew on it and give you a real shot. What’s there is dispersing already; the alcohol doesn’t help, of course, but you’re throwing it off….’ He chattered away, and after a few minutes the pain began to disappear. Much later, he told him what had really happened to him.

The doctor did not argue with the patient’s fixed idea; he treated him according to his conviction. When the sufferer is no longer in a state of agitation, he will be able to listen, and understand the truth.
The victim is not always to be saved. Dr Shastri told his pupils of a case in India which he saw as a boy. A house roof was to be rethatched. As the old thatch was being taken off in handfuls one worker – a simple man – found that he had picked up in his handful a dead snake. ‘It must have bitten me,’ he cried, and began to tremble. It was explained to him that the snake must have been dead for some time, but in spite of all that could be done, he himself was dead in three days.

Many illusions can have such marked physical effects; the examples of ‘snake-bite’ are not unique. In many cases of illness there is an added element produced by fearful imaginings. An old farmer has related how, when he was a boy, they were still branding young sheep. The first time he was called to help his job was to hold the legs. The sheep gave a piteous cry as it was branded, and after a little he began to feel a pain on his own side, corresponding to where the hot brand was applied to the sheep. He was soft-hearted, and it got so bad that he could not go on. His uncle the farmer understood, and told him: ‘Well, sit down over there. Don’t look at us, but look at the sheep that have been done.’ He saw to his surprise that the little sheep cried for only about a minute, and then began grazing. After that they once or twice stopped and gave a small cry, but soon seemed to have forgotten all about it. As he watched, he found the pain in his own side disappearing.

An experiment which has been successfully performed many times, though barred today on ethical grounds, is to suggest to a blindfolded volunteer that he is touched by a glowing iron rod. Strong reddening and, in some cases, blisters result. Anatomists have wondered how the sympathetic nerve, the only organ linking the brain and the skin, could evoke a particular local effect like a blister. There is a critical review of the literature reporting controlled experiments on these lines, and the conclusion is that such effects do occur.

The classical illustrations of illusion given so far have been negative. They are unfortunate accidents, which have frightening or dangerous effects. Sometimes Śaṅkara extends the snake-rope illusion, along with its unfavourable effects, to the world-illusion. The world-appearance then becomes something to be avoided, dispersed as soon as possible. This is a viewpoint appropriate for one who has completed his role in life and has retired from the world. Perhaps he has become a monk-teacher.

However, the Gītā gives a different view for people committed by their past undertakings to action in the world. Śaṅkara too cites other kinds of illusion, this time deliberately created for a hidden purpose. A modern example might be a big city in Japan, where police seem to be everywhere. They are standing watchfully at street comers, traffic intersections, and near motorways. A foreigner feels he is under constant surveillance, and is on his best behaviour all the time. One day he happens to pass close to one of the policemen and finds that it is a life- size model. After that he develops a little rule: if it moves, it is a policeman, and if it does not, it is a dummy. Then one day, he parks illegally under the nose of one of the models, having watched it for a minute or so to check that it does not move. It then charges him with his offence. Japanese police are trained to stand quite still for ten-minute spells: the model is made to look like a policeman, and the policeman is trained to look like a model. It is a double false attribution, and this too is a feature of Śaṅkara’s philosophy.

There is yet another type, where an illusion is created not only to give significance but also to create beauty. Śaṅkara cites the drama in this connection. It was favoured by Dr Shastri in his exposition of the Gītā. This depends on an illusion cast over the audience by the performance, and partially accepted by them. When the popular theatre was still comparatively new, audiences used to hiss the villain, and sometimes try to warn the hero. In a dim way they still knew that they had paid for their seats. They knew with one part of the mind that what they saw was merely actors playing a part. But the illusion could grip them so strongly that they felt it as real. At performances of Dracula there were first-aid staff in attendance to look after those who fainted.

We may feel more sophisticated today, but television stations often receive letters from viewers which show that they think they have been looking at real events. When a popular elderly actress complains (following her script) of migraine headaches, sometimes more than a dozen letters come to her, addressed to the station giving remedies for migraine which the writers have found effective. Research shows that there are many more viewers, who do not actually write, but still have difficulty in distinguishing reality from illusion. In one episode of a popular serial, then running over thirty years, one of the female characters was to retire to the country. The script made the mistake of mentioning an actual village. Some fans of the programme found it on the map, then made the trip and knocked up various houses to ask where they could find her. Apologizing, the programme producer remarked that some regular viewers find difficulty in distinguishing the levels of reality. ‘We should have known’, he added sadly.

Both types of illusion – accidental and purposeful – are given by the Gītā, and by Śaṅkara following the Gītā. The first type, where the illusion itself has no value, is given when the impact of events in the world seems shattering. In XVIII.61 the Gītā says that most men and events are like mere puppets, with only a semblance of choice, mechanically and mindlessly driven by a magic illusion (māyā). Moreover, even the wise follow their nature; what should forcible restraint avail (III.33)? Again, all beings come into manifestation, and then inevitably go out of manifestation again; it is meaningless to grieve over what is unavoidable (II.28). In one place the Gītā calls the world ‘joyless’; it tells the disciple to do his duty and then leave it. These passages are directed to those who feel tightly bound by the world as absolutely real. Just so the parents might say to a child overwhelmed by the reality of a pantomime in which the hero-children seem certain to be killed: ‘It’s not real. There’s nothing there at all. It’s just actors coming on and off the stage.’

But there is the other type of illusion, where the wonder and divine beauty of the world are appreciated. It is a spiritual play, put on by the magical power of the Lord and entered into by him. In this, human beings also have a part which they can play. They can have some choice, and can voluntarily and consciously co-operate with the Lord instead of being puppets. This view is for those who feel the stirrings of freedom in themselves. In some of the audience and actors, the Lord begins to awaken to his own display of māyā.
The world-play is accepted as partially real, by the voluntary consent of audience and actors. If the children in the audience at Treasure Island believe that the jewels on the stage in the final scene are real, they may want to have them, and even try to climb up on to the stage to get them. But simply to dismiss them as totally valueless in every sense, destroys enjoyment of the play. In Julius Caesar; if the actor in the title role thinks that the daggers of the assassins are real, he may fight desperately for his life. If he simply dismisses them as fake stage knives, he will not fall dead. For successful drama, there has to be a balance between belief and disbelief. Some degree of belief is necessary to see the beauty of a masterpiece like King Lear: but if belief became absolute, the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are put out would scar the viewer for a long time.

There are differences between the world as generally experienced, and a play. These differences are confronted in the life of yoga. Still, the play analogy, though not perfect, teaches one more thing. There is a continuous strain in maintaining an illusion, even unconsciously. Television viewers usually believe that they are in relaxation, but this is not so. It is an effort to keep masking out the inconsistencies, and hold the sense of a living reality in the tiny screen figures, which yet speak with normal full-size voices.

In fact the whole world of television is light and nothing but light, produced in a mysterious way by electrons fired from the back of the set on to the screen. It is mysterious because, the physicists say, the path of each electron is unpredictable. The picture is reasonably sharp only because the number of electrons involved is enormous: by the law of averages, the cumulative effect of many electrons is predictable. But there is no known reason why any particular electron should go to point x rather than some other place. The picture fragment is an event without a cause.

These facts are worth mentioning because there are some parallels with Śaṅkara’s analysis of the world as perceived by us. Strictly speaking the universe too is an event without a cause, though a cause is provisionally postulated. But yoga practice does not depend on distant inferences from present-day physics. Yoga is derived from its own experiments directly on consciousness, and not from inferences or guesses.

131 Bhagavad Gita contradictory doctrines
123 Sankara’s Presentation of the Bhagavad Gita Paths