Thursday, 17 July 2014

Illusion or Maya - Is this true or is that true?

The Janaka story

There is a famous story of the wise king Janaka which is simply the perfect recipe to understand the illusory nature of the world. In the Sanathana Dharma (the Eternal Way of Life - which has been carelessly translated as ‘Hinduism’), there is a special term to denote this illusory and temporary nature of the world - Maya. The impact of Maya is tremendous; in fact it is the cause for everything that we see, hear and feel in the physical world. To understand what is Maya better, I would direct the reader to the introductory paragraph in the story of the squirrel helping Lord Rama and to that occasion when Maya made me negate my own Master (Guru), Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. The story of Janaka is yet another lovely illustration.

One fine day, as Emperor Janaka sat on the throne in his palace, enjoying a dance by a bevy of beautiful damsels, he dozed off! Seeing this, the courtiers and dancers wondered what they should do. Lacking the temerity to wake him up or disturb him, they all slowly slipped away to their respective rooms, leaving the king alone in the massive hall. In the meanwhile, the emperor had a dream.

He dreamt that rival kings had joined forces and invaded his dominion and captured his capital and that, to save himself from them he ran into a forest. Fleeing from his foes, he had no food for days together. He was too exhausted to move. But, hunger dragged him on. When he came to the outskirts of a tribal village, he saw a man washing his plate after taking food; he shouted to him asking for a few particles. The man gave him a small morsel, but, as bad luck would have it, a crow flew in at that moment and snatched it away! In that pathetic plight, he began to scream in agony. And suddenly, he woke up!

Even as he opened his eyes, he saw that he was surrounded by his queen, his maids and personal attendants. They were awaiting his slightest indication so that they could rush to serve him. He saw large trays and bowls of the choicest fruits. His cook too was in a corner, and he would surely whip up mouth-watering delicacies at the slightest wish of the emperor. But Janaka was in a daze. He looked at his queen and asked,
“Is this real or is that real?”

Since the question was with reference to his dream, the queen did not understand what he was saying.
“Beg your pardon my Lord...”
“Is this real or is that real?”
“I do not understand.... Can I help you in some way? You appear flustered...”
“Is this real or is that real?”

And the emperor’s questioning continued. He spoke nothing else; did nothing else. It became evident that his thoughts were pervaded by nothing else except the unfathomable question,
“Is this real or is that real?”

At a loss of ideas of what had to be done, the queen summoned the wise sage, Vasishta. She intuitively knew that her husband was suffering not from any physical or mental ailment but a spiritual doubt. A spiritual doubt can be answered by a Guru and Guru alone. Sage Vasishta approaches the emperor with a smile and, immediately, Janaka asks him,
“Is this real or is that real?”

The sage answers him in a sentence. In a flash of illumination, Janaka discovers the Truth. He grasps the reality and is at peace. What is it that the sage tells him?

The answer gains significance only when one pines for it. It makes greater meaning when one receives it after actively seeking it. So, it only makes sense that I reveal what the sage said only at the very end. Before that, here are a few insights and questions about illusions that we see and experience almost daily in our life. I shall stick only to optical illusions here because the popular phrase goes - “Seeing is believing”. How much can we really believe what we see?

The relativity of everything

Everything that we see in the world is relative. When we think of something as made up of ‘warm’ colors, it is in relation to some ‘cold’ colors. If we conclude that something is ‘moving’, it is only with respect to something that is ‘stationary’. There is nothing ‘absolute’ about things in the world. Here is a small example.

Take a look at the photo of a baby. You can clearly see a vertical partition wherein the left half of the image is ‘cold’ or ‘bluish’ while the right half is ‘warm’ or ‘yellowish’.

Now, here is a cool way to correct the above image. Just stare hard at the ‘+’ sign in the center of the image below for about 20 seconds. Then, look up to the baby’s image. Viola! All corrections have taken place!

Our perception of color depends on other colors surrounding it as well. It also depends on the colors we see before seeing the object.

Could it be possible that our happiness or sadness in the world too depends on the emotions surrounding it and the emotions we are subject to before that? Then what is true emotion? What is true happiness?

Color perception itself is such an illusion. When light strikes an object, parts of its electromagnetic spectrum are absorbed and parts of it are reflected. When we see something as ‘blue’, that is because that object has absorbed all other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum except ‘blue’. Blue is being reflected and so the object appears blue. Just imagine what a falsity it is to call an object blue when, in reality, it is all other colors except blue! Makes you go blue realizing that your world is not true!
This brings to mind a statement from Swami’s discourse about the reality of the world:
“All that you think is true, is actually not true. All that you think is not true, is actually true.”

So true right?

When we see and yet do not see

Have a look at the picture below. Read out aloud what is written there.

If you ask anybody, “How do you see?”, the answer is, “Through my eyes.”
That seems so natural because the blind cannot see. But is it true that the eye sees? Swami explains in a discourse that the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin remain even after death. And yet, they are unable to sense because it is the ‘indweller’ that sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels - not the sense organs. That is why, though he lacked ‘vision’ in the worldly sense, the blind saint Surdas always ‘saw’ his Lord. In fact when Lord Krishna blesses him saying,
“I shall grant you vision”,
Surdas refuses. He says,
“Lord! What use is the vision that helps me see everything but you? I am happy to remain like this. Please do not curse me with sight.”

During a Trayee session, I remember Sri Ajit Popat (aka Sai Puppet) praying to Swami,
“Swami, please grant me those eyes through which Arjuna could see Lord Krishna in His true form. Grant me the eyes of wisdom.”
Swami smiled and promised that He would bless him at the right time.

The point is that one cannot claim to see just because one has sight. The image below will make you realize it.

Swami exhorts in His discourses,
“Pashyanapi Na pashyati Mudho, Mudho Mudho.” (You see and yet do not see you fool, fool, fool!) How correct right?

The importance of experience

Have a look at the images of Mona Lisa, hung upside down. Can you say which is genuine and which is fake?

Of course, you could spot the fake. it might have taken 5-6 seconds and, depending on how well you know her, you could spot the correct one. Now, have a look at the Mona Lisa in the normal orientation.

Did you ever think that the fake was so grotesque and ugly? Even I didn’t! And that is because we are never used to judging beauty when something is ‘upside down’. One definitely needs previous experience and proper perspective to judge beauty.

We think that we have achieved happiness, peace and success in the world. But how can we even know what these are unless we have truly experienced them? That is why, all our happiness lasts only for a while. Soon, we are unhappy again and we realize that what we thought of happiness previously is not actual happiness. However, once we experience real happiness, it becomes easy to judge the original from fake! And what is that real happiness?
“Happiness is union with God”, Swami says.

Vasishta’s answer to Janaka

Having briefly ‘seen’ the illusory nature of our world, we are now in a better position to appreciate the answer of the sage to emperor Janaka. The emperor asked him,
“Is this real or is that real?”

The sage replied,
“Neither is true. The one that witnessed them (and thus was present both in the waking and sleeping state) alone is true.”

Come to think of it. We often mistake ourselves to be the body and so, feel the experiences of the body as ‘true’. But when we sleep, the body is motionless and inactive. Yet, we dream so many things. That is because the mind is active. But are we the mind? When we enjoy a deep sleep, we feel refreshed. There are no dreams, the mind is silent and we enjoy nothingness. We wake up and proclaim,
“I had a good sleep.”

When the body was inactive and the mind was inactive, who is the “I” who ‘enjoyed’ the sleep?

That is a good question; the answer to which lies in understanding Maya because Maya is the modelling clay God used to create the Universe! By the way, there is a 3-D software for creating 'virtual' worlds. It is used extensively for animation. 

You know what is it called?

Yup! Maya!

Autodesk Maya to be precise.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy the following:

1. The awesome Elephant Theory
2. Diamonds are Forever ...... But why?
3. The Halley's Comet and the Descent of God

For all readers:

(If you enjoyed this and wish to subscribe to this blog, please go to the right hand side and choose the last 'box' which says subscribe. Also explore the many 'previous articles' listed month-wise on the top right here, in the web version of the blog. Another blog which I maintain with more than 230 articles on it is at If you wish to be added to my mailing list, please email me via this page with the subject "ADD ME TO MAILING LIST".)


  1. Very well written! This is an amazing story for me to share with my balavikas children next week.

    Almost an year back in the sathya sai bangalore office bearer's meet I heard an alumni qoute an amazing experience regarding a play that was staged by students the plot was the xact story qouted above

    In the drama there were 2 janakas cast one the real king janaka and the other was the hungry dream janaka. Usually swami materialised some gift for the main roles in the play. But in this case swami actually materialized a ring (or chain not sure) to the boy who played the dream janaka. Though his appearance in the play was very brief, that boy to make his tierd look realistic dint sleep for two nights in a row and ate very very meagre food to get his looks close to real in the play. Am sure you must have heard of this too Aravind!

  2. wonderful story, well narrated. will use it for my harikatha. I strongly feel nowadays that YOU ARE A BLESSED SOUL. Sairam brother

  3. comment on this article through words is like assessing the depth of an ocean by swimming and remind you no swimmer atleast from planet earth had ever reached the depth of an ocean....sairam

  4. Sai Ram, yet another inspiration! Thank you!


Please do take some time to leave your valuable thoughts and feedback here. It will be an enriching read for me. :)