The Illusion Is a Product of Ignorance

While we may not be able to claim unreality for the fact of the manifested universe, there remains nevertheless an element of unreality that needs to be viewed and addressed. The attempt to separate the Brahman from the manifestation, by creating the concept of a Cosmic Illusion clearly has failed its test, as Sri Aurobindo has pointed out. This still leaves us, however, with the experience of an unreality that remains a true experience at certain stages of spiritual development.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “If the unreal is not a fact of being, it must be an act or a formation of consciousness, and is there not then a status or degree of consciousness in which its acts and formations are wholly or partly unreal? If tihs unreality cannot be attributed to an original cosmic Illusion, to Maya, there is still in the universe itself a power of illusion of Ignorance. It is in the power of the Mind to conceive things that are nto real, it is in its power even to create things that are not real or not wholly real; its very view of itself and universe is a construction that is not wholly real or wholly unreal. Where does this element of unreality begin and where does it stop, and what is its cause and what ensues on the removal of both the cause and the consequence?”

He continues by pointing out that if the Ignorance were total it might be a mechanism to convict the manifestation of total unreality, but in fact, Ignorance is a mixture of Truth and Falsehood, and has more the appearance of a transitional stage or phase rather than an ultimate and conclusive fact.

Sri Aurobindo concludes: “if some Ignorance is the cause of all things and all action here and not a condition and circumstance, then indeed the cessation of individual ignorance could only come by an escape of the individual from world-being, and a cessation of the cosmic ignorance would be the destruction of world-being. But if this world has at its root an evolutionary principle, if our ignorance is a half-knowledge evolving towards knowledge, another account and another issue and spiritual result of our existence in material Nature, a greater manifestation here becomes possible.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

Reconciling the Absolute of Negation with the Absolute of Affirmation

The Isha Upanishad in its short compass provides an outstanding basis for reconciling the Absolute in both its Negation and its Affirmation. Both the positive and the negative poles of knowledge and experience are viewed and accepted. The Knowledge and the Ignorance, the Birth and the Non-Birth, these apparent opposites are both necessary to have the complete knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo points out “The Absolute is in itself indefinable by reason, ineffable to the speech; it has to be approached through experience. It can be approached through an absolute negation of existence, as if it were itself a supreme Non-Existence, a mysterious infinite Nihil. It can be approached through an absolute affirmation of all the fundamentals of our own existence, through an absolute of Light and Knowledge, through an absolute of Love or Beauty, through an absolute of Force, through an absolute of peace or silence.”

The formula “not this, not that” is meant, not to deny the reality of the manifestation, but to avoid the impulse to circumscribe or limit the Absolute by what our minds can grasp. It is wider, higher, larger, more powerful, all-knowing, in relation to anything we can imagine. This formula is in fact not intended to be understood in the absence of the affirmative statement “All This is the Brahman” and “One without a Second”. These positive affirmations assure us of the Reality of the manifested universe, and the Unity of all.

The Upanishad states: “All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.”

Those who limit themselves by one side or the other of this knowledge creating duality out of unity, and multiplicity out of Oneness, caught in the limits of human logic which opposes Reality with its limitations, find eventually no solution to the riddle of life. Sri Aurobindo points out that the way of negation and abandonment of life is not the only way to approach the Reality of our Existence.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

The Mind Creates the Illusory Sense of Illusion

An objection is raised at this point, however, that everything we have described is the cosmic manifestation and this is limited…There is still the Transcendent, which is unlimited, eternal, absolute; thus, the cosmic action is an illusion regardless.

Sri Aurobindo responds to this, by agreeing that the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Absolute cannot be limited, but he draws the opposite conclusion from this fact: “It is self-evident indeed that the Absolute cannot be limited; it can be limited neither by formlessness nor by form, neither by unity nor by multiplicity, neither by immobile status nor by dynamic mobility. If it manifests form, form cannot limit it; if it manifests multiplicity, multiplicity cannot divide it; if it manifests motion and becoming, motion cannot perturb nor becoming change it: it cannot be limited any more than it can be exhausted by self-creation. Even material things have this superiority to their manifestation; earth is not limited by the vessels made from it, nor air by the winds that move in it, nor the sea by the waves that rise on its surface. This impression of limitation belongs only to the mind and sense which see the finite as if it were an independent entity separating itself from the Infinite or something cut out of it by limitation: it is this impression that is illusory, but neither the infinite nor the finite is an illusion; for neither exists by the impressions of the sense or the mind, they depend for their existence on on the Absolute.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

Understanding Infinite Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo describes the essence of the problem we bring to trying to understand the Reality from our human perspective: “All the intellectual problem and difficulty is raised by the finite reason cutting, separating, opposing the power of the Infinite to its being, its kinesis to its status, its natural multiplicity to its essential oneness, segmenting self, opposing Spirit to Nature. To understand truly the world-process of the Infinite and the Time-process of the Eternal, the consciousness must pass beyond this finite reason and the finite sense to a larger reason and spiritual sense in touch with the consciousness of the Infinite and responsive to the logic of the Infinite which is the very logic of being itself and arises inevitably from its self-operation of its own realities, a logic whose sequences are not the steps of thought but the steps of existence.”

From the viewpoint of the human being, where everything is fragmented and put into opposition to everything else, we never really have the opportunity to see and respond to the universe as a whole, and we thus fail to understand the “big picture” of the manifested existence. If we exceed and transcend the limits of human reason, we first start by seeing bigger patterns and inter-relations of forms and events, and sequencing in Time and Space that make it clear that there is a much larger Intelligence and Purpose to existence than what we ordinarily grasp. The vastness of the Universe, combined with the unending extent of Time, and the minute detail of all the inter-workings and interweavings of the web of Life all show us that the human Reason is not a competent tool for understanding Infinity.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

The Finite is a Process of the Infinite

Eventually there must be a reversal of the way we see things, as we move to broader and more inclusive levels of consciousness and from there look back upon the processes of mind, life and body. At that point, Sri Aurobindo advises: “the finite would reveal itself as a power, a movement, a process of the Infinite.” It is thus only from this comprehensive standpoint that any real understanding of life and the manifested universe can be gained, as it is from this standpoint that we can see the parts in their relation to the whole; not artificially cut up and divided from one another as is the case when we start from the normal viewpoint of the human mind.

Sri Aurobindo continues: “An original and ultimate consciousness would be a consciousness of the Infinite and necessarily unitarian in its view of diversity, integral, all-accepting, all-embracing, all-discriminating because all-determining, an indivisible whole-vision. It would see the essence of things and regard all forms and movements as phenomenon and consequence of the essential Reality, motions and formations of its power of being.”

“…what appear as contradictions to a reason based on the finite may not be contradictions to a vision or a larger reason based on the infinite. What our mind sees as contraries may be to the infinite consciousness not contraries but complementaries: essence and phenomenon of the essence are complementary to each other, not contradictory,–the phenomenon manifests the essence; the finite is a circumstance and not a contradiction of the infinite; the individual is a self-expression of the universal and the transcendent,–it is not a contradiction or something quite other than it, it is the universal concentrated and selective, it is one with the Transcendent in its essence of being and its essence of nature.”

The forms of the universe are thus “an infinite Oneness expressing itself in a multiplicity of beings and aspects and powers and movements, for they are beings and aspects and powers and movements of the One.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

Understanding The Powers of Perception

Before we can get any sense of Reality, we need to understand both the powers and limitations of our experience, our senses and our minds. As an example, Sri Aurobindo points out the following: “To our sense the earth is flat and, for most immediate practical purposes, within a limit, we have to follow the sense reality and deal with the flatness as if it were a fact; but in true phenomenal reality the flatness of the earth is unreal, and Science seeking for the truth of the phenomenal reality in things has to treat it as approximately round. In a host of details Science contradicts the evidence of the senses as to the real truth of phenomena; but, still, we have to accept the cadre provided by our senses because the practical relations with things which they impose on us have validity as an effect of reality and cannot be disregarded. Our reason, relying on the senses and exceeding them, constructs its own canons or notions of the real and unreal, but these canons vary according to the standpoint taken by the reasoning observer.”

The understanding of what we experience also changes with the viewpoint of the person making the observation: “The physical scientist probing into phenomena erects formulas and standards based on the objective and phenomenal reality and its processes: to his view mind may appear as a subjective result of Matter and self and spirit as unreal; at any rate he has to act as if matter and energy alone existed and mind were only an observer of an independent physical reality which is unaffected by any mental processes or any presence or intervention of a cosmic Intelligence. The psychologist, probing independently into mind consciousness and mind unconsciousness, discovers another domain of realities, subjective in its character, which has its own law and process; to him Mind may even come to appear as the key of the real. Matter as only a field for mind, and spirit apart from mind as something unreal.”

Of course, we can push this further to the next level at which the basis of reality is in spirit, and mind and matter become secondary phenomena….

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion

Exploring “What is Reality?”

Sri Aurobindo has explored the question of the Cosmic Illusion at somewhat considerable length because it is such a powerful spiritual experience at the point where the Mind reaches its limit and essentially “gives up” trying to grasp and control the forces of existence and creation. The sense of futility of the mental constructions, the sense of vastness beyond anything that the mind can conceive, the sense of unmoving stability beyond the conception of the mobile mind–all these create the sense of the Cosmic Illusion, and this barrier is the first takeaway from the mind’s search for knowledge and reaching the limits of the mental sphere.

Sri Aurobindo has shown in his review of this subject that this first impression of the nature of Existence beyond the Mind is conditioned by the limitations of the Mind and is not itself an ultimate and final Truth. Rather, there are levels of consciousness beyond this sphere, based in Knowledge rather than Ignornance, which overcomes the sense of Illusion and convicts it of its own limitations and contradictions.

This brings us then to the question, if the Cosmic Illusion is not the ultimate solution, “What is Reality?” Sri Aurobindo points out however that we have to understand the tools we are utilizing in this search: “Our cognitive consciousness is limited, ignorant, finite; our conceptions of reality depend on our way of contact with existence in this limited consciousness and may be very different from the way in which an original and ultimate Consciousness sees it. It is necessary to distinguish between the essential Reality, the phenomenal reality dependent upon it and arising out of it, and the restricted and often misleading experience or notion of either that is created by our sense-experience and our reason.”

This exploration will be the subject of the next post.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 6, Reality and the Cosmic Illusion