Is Illusion Greater than Reality?


Is illusion superior to reality? If you think ignorance is bliss then, well, yeah, maybe. But if we take this question seriously you might respond by saying, “Why should I even take this question seriously? Duh!”

Okay, conventional wisdom says that reality is (obviously) greater than illusion. So it may surprise you to learn that a lot of yoga folks subscribe to a brand of yoga philosophy that, if you follow it to it’s logical conclusion, actually says just the opposite: that illusion must be greater than reality.

It may not be so apparent at first glance, but there’s a bit of circular reasoning hiding inside some popular notions about yoga philosophy that results in an irresolvable internal contradiction. And this really matters for anyone who thinks that the goal of yoga is liberation from illusion because if it turns out that illusion is actually greater than reality, well… Houston, we have a problem.

Of course, circular reasoning that results in an internal contradiction can’t really be logical in the first place. But to see how some common trains of thought ultimately self-destruct we need to probe a little beneath the surface. Let’s start by following in the footsteps of Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, by stating a proposition and then defining the terms of our proposition. Our proposition: reality is greater than illusion. Fine – now let’s define our terms:

Reality: actual being or existence, as opposed to an imaginary, idealized, or false nature; the totality of real things in the world, independent of people’s knowledge or perception of them.

So far, so good. Next:

Illusion: something that deceives the mind or senses, for example, by appearing to exist when it does not or appearing to be one thing when it is in fact another; a false idea, conception, or belief concerning something.

Hmmm. It’s true that the mind and senses are prone to deception and are therefore unreliable instruments of perception. But yoga philosophy considers the mind and senses to be both prone to illusion and, more importantly, to be products of illusion. Contemporary western thought tends to equate the mind with the self, but classical yoga philosophy makes a clear distinction between the mind and the self or consciousness proper so, from the standpoint of yoga, we’ll need to tweak this definition by substituting ‘consciousness’ for ‘mind and senses’:

Illusion: something that deceives the consciousness by appearing to exist when it does not or by appearing to be one thing when it is in fact another.

This is a better correlation to the Sanskrit word for illusion: maya, or ‘that which is not’. Now let’s go back and cross-reference our definition of reality: How does yoga philosophy describe ‘actual being or existence’?

“Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent there is no endurance and of the eternal there is no change.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.16)

In other words, that which is eternal and changeless is real and anything that changes over time is an illusion; doesn’t really exist. Since everything in our experience is affected by time, everything we call “reality” is, by this definition, an illusion or, at best, an inferior reality. The Gita later confirms this proposition:

“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego—all together these eight constitute my separated material energies. Besides these, there is another, superior energy of mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this inferior material nature.” (Bhagavad Gita 7.4-5)

This sounds like a definitive qualitative analysis to me: matter comes and goes but conscious living energy is forever; things that last are real and superior to illusory things that are eventually, but inevitably, blown away by the winds of time. Case closed: reality is greater than illusion. Duh!

So where is this yoga philosophy that says otherwise? Hiding in plain sight: stay tuned.

2 Trackbacks

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