of us remember having watched a sunset. This daily occurrence
has never failed to make an observer calm. As the sun dips
inexorably towards the horizon, it appears to get progressively
closer and larger, and then, with a burst of glory, sinks
below the horizon. What most of us do not realize is the fact
that though the sun is real, a sunset is subject to two types
of illusion: one, the very structure of the universe makes
one see the sun ‘set’; the other is the illusion of size and
colour resulting from the very structure of the mind. The
latter is due to subconscious perceptual conditioning. The
brain uses the horizon or the objects on the terrain, as visual
reference points. This makes the sun appear closer and larger.
When it is overhead, its size appears much smaller. Apart
from this, atmospheric dust and water vapour distort light
and make the sunset colourful.
are never willed; illusions are harmless; illusions enhance
life. If we are conditioned to experience illusions we have
also conditioned ourselves to take them for granted. Besides,
illusions are not indicative of any visual or psychological
disorder. But a question arises: If this experience is true,
then illusions might cover similar or all experiences, for
the two factors (the structure of matter and mind) are common
to all experiences. What, then, is actually ‘out there’?
us say you are travelling in a train which has temporarily
halted for some reason at a station deep in the Indian countryside.
It is late and as you gaze out of the window, you notice the
moon racing across the dark cloudy sky. The noise usual in
a second-class coach recedes to the background as the sound
of another train’s horn is heard rising in volume. You crane
your neck out to watch the other train approaching on the
opposite track. As the other train passes by your window,
you feel a sudden lurch as if your own train has started and
moved forward. Simultaneously the sound of the other train’s
horn begins to fade. As that train speeds away, you notice
that your train has not moved an inch. After five minutes
the train does move on and you notice the sylvan landscape
flying backwards. Relaxing in the seat you glance at the wristwatch,
which says the train was detained for just ten minutes. But
it felt like half an hour. You acknowledge a smile of relief
from the dark co-passenger sitting in front. His smile reveals
brilliant white teeth. A few feet away a child inadvertently
drops the fragile toy she is playing with. She lets out such
a wail seeing her toy broken that everybody within earshot
is made to wince. A full minute of this assault on the eardrums
is stilled as the child suddenly gets another toy from her
mother. The passengers luxuriate in the wonderful silence.
you experienced during the last ten minutes was something
remarkable. Clouds sailing across the sky due to a stiff wind
made the moon appear to race. The fact that you felt the train
had restarted while it was stationary was an illusion. This
was due to the mind using the passing train and its sound
(which itself was varying due to the Doppler effect) as frames
of reference. The landscape flying past the window is an illusion
related to the direction of movement. Time seems to crawl
while waiting and fly when we are engaged in something. The
brilliant white teeth of the co-passenger are an illusion
occasioned by the contrast of his dark skin. The child’s wail
had masked all other sounds, even the clutter of the wheels,
and when she stopped, the ‘silence’ you experienced was also
such human experiences are illusory, why then are they categorized
as real? Is our conception of reality then a mixture of the
real and the illusory? Is it illusion that makes us think
of human experiences as real? Or is it an illusion that we
think we experience illusions? This is no illusory ‘loop within
a loop’ clever argument. This subject has been studied down
the ages and has retained its contemporary relevance. For
answers to this question will reveal the nature of the physical
world that exists independent of the sensory organs. Or, in
other words, whether what one experiences at all exists the
way it is perceived.
are closer at hand than sunsets. An artist paints with the
idea of creating an illusion of depth on the canvas. Do we
see the artist’s illusion, or does our mind create the illusion
of three dimensions when there are only two? A writer creates
an illusion in the reader’s mind that the latter comprehends
what has been written. Does the writer create the illusion
or is it our mind that deceives us? Movies also create illusions
in which we lose ourselves. There are many people and many
philosophies that foster the illusion that our lives and times
are perfectly all right, ‘So enjoy yourself’! As if this were
not enough, there are people who have closely and professionally
studied illusions, not to eradicate but to magnify them. Magicians
and illusionists are looked at with awe and fascination. They
make use of illusions to entertain and educate.
and Sensory Deception
has endowed human beings with a refined sensory nervous system,
capping it with a cerebral cortex superior to that of other
creatures. Yet it is known how inadequate our senses are compared
to those of other life forms. To offset this limitation and
further enhance knowledge, humans have developed instruments
to peer minutely at things to find out how they work; for
we dislike misinterpreting reality, whatever be the ‘reality’
of illusions. The history of science itself is a history of
humanity trying to understand the environment and come to
terms with it. But it seems for every problem it solves, a
new one arises in its place. However, studies in neurology
and the structural formation of sensory organs, besides those
in electromagnetism, optics and thermodynamics, have eradicated
a lot of misconceptions. But with all this knowledge it is
seen that either matter seems to be deceiving us, or our senses,
along with the brain and mind, are.
Perception and Our World
the amazing visual apparatus, the foremost among our sense
organs. We perceive in colour. Many wavelengths of electromagnetic
radiation enter our eyes and a two-dimensional inverted image
of the object is formed on the retina in each eye. Then with
the help of photoreceptor cells (rods and cones), and dedicated
nerves, the images are transmitted via the optic nerve, containing
millions of nerve fibres, further up to the visual centre
at the back of the brain. The brain re-inverts the images
while fusing them into a single composite picture. This super-fast
process that involves no less than forty centres simultaneously
gives the complex spatial, temporal and colour information
about the object ‘out there and now’. Yet with all these advances
the actual process is still only vaguely understood. It must
also be emphasized at this point that real perception is in
world is densely packed with electromagnetic radiation, though
only a small portion of it is perceptible. Every object, including
our bodies, emits and absorbs radiation. Over and above these
are the wavelengths emitted by modern machines, all impinging
continuously on the organism (your cell phone begins beeping,
and this is no illusion!). The brain has to sift through all
this stimulus energy to give a coherent picture of things.
At the same time, it is known that the brain can work only
selectively, interpreting some stimuli and ignoring a good
deal, in order to save itself time and energy to coordinate
the motor nerves. This selection is made on the organism’s
basic need for survival. If every sensation from outside were
to be interpreted, it would lead to terrible chaos. It is
postulated that a major portion of the sensations is ignored.
If this is the state of things, how can anyone believe that
this tiny fragment of what is interpreted by the brain gives
a perfect picture of the external world?
mind, apart from interpreting sensory stimuli, also contributes
its own data to them. When still pictures are flashed on the
screen at a certain speed, the brain interprets the pictures
as continuous and fluid by completing the movements. This
is done subconsciously and this is what has made motion pictures
and television possible and enjoyable. Then, the familiar
nearby objects, which we are used to seeing daily, are stabilized,
which means that within a certain range the objects’ sizes
will not vary. Another interesting auto-corrective phenomenon
has been reported: In a study the subjects were made to wear
special glasses that made the world appear upside down. Initially
the brain got confused, but then it took over and astoundingly
corrected the vision, right side up, though the special glasses
were still on - and when the glasses were removed, the brain
again got back to its old way of seeing things!
mirage is experienced when light passing through the layers
of hot air above a heated surface undergoes total internal
reflection through the denser cold layer of air above it.
Sometimes a mirage may contain not only trees and water, but
whole towns may be seen floating in the air (the proverbial
gandharvanagari, city of the celestial musicians).
Even alleged UFO sightings could be the result of such illusion.
Rail tracks converge at a distance. A stick half immersed
in water appears bent. But we have the knowledge that mirages
are unreal, that tracks do not converge and that sticks do
not bend on immersion. Further, a whirling firebrand is seen
to create a circle of light, but its illusory nature is known.
This common knowledge proves that perception of an object
and knowledge of it are two different things.
are not limited to visual ones alone but may also be trans-sensory.
Very sensitive people say that they ‘perceive’ colour when
they hear certain words. Some musicians can also see colour
when particular notes are struck. Then there is the mirror-ego
phenomenon. It is questioned whether, when one’s skin is touched
while he is looking at himself in front of a mirror, one experiences
the touch as if it were in the mirror image or perceives it
to be in contact with one’s own body as it actually appears
in front of the mirror. These may be classed as pseudo-hallucinations,
but whatever they are called, the bottom line is that perception
of something is giving rise to a different cognition. There
seems to be no strict cause-and-effect relationship in these
cases. Anyone stepping out from a giant-wheel ride or from
a rough boat trip feels the ground moving beneath the feet.
Some scholars even include the phantom-limb phenomenon that
amputees have under illusion, although the pain is very much
experienced, and one takes real painkillers for it. Duja
vu is a reliving of the experience of some person, place
or thing; it is an illusion. Touching a hot object and then
immersing the hand in lukewarm water will give a cold sensation.
Lifting a heavy object before lifting another will make the
second one seem lighter. These are a few illusions that are
now being explained not as illusions but as simple experiences
was mentioned that the brain reads only a part of the sensory
stimulus; this means knowing the external world only partially.
Secondly, the stimulus energy is subject to distortion (arthadhyasa
in Vedanta). Thirdly, the senses are limited. Lastly, and
most importantly, the mind contributes its own data (jnanadhyasa
in Vedanta), which is itself based on the first and second
imperfections. Now a serious question that arises is this:
Is the mind itself the cause of illusions? Is everything that
is experienced a deception? To look at it philosophically,
science deals with sensory knowledge. Does it mean that science
is taking help of imperfect sensory knowledge in trying to
search for reality?
illusion is different from hallucination, a mild form of epilepsy,
self-hypnotism or absent-mindedness. Illusion, as we have
seen, has to have a ‘real’ sensory stimulus from an object.
There has to be a substratum. The experience of seeing illusions
has been studied by most Indian philosophical systems, from
hard-core Realists to the Nihilists (Buddhist Shunyavadins).
Real Psychology of Perception
us take up the distinction between perception of the object
and its knowledge once more and have a look at Swamiji’s explication
of this fact:
whole universe is like … the pearl which is being formed
by us. What we get from the external world is simply the
blow. Even to be conscious of that blow we have to react,
and as soon as we react, we really project a portion of
our own mind towards the blow, and when we come to know
of it, it is really our own mind as it has been shaped by
the blow. Therefore it is clear even to those who want to
believe in a hard and fast realism … that supposing we
represent the external world by ‘x’, what we really know
is ‘x’ plus mind, and this mind element is so great that
it has covered the whole of that ‘x’ which has remained
unknown and unknowable throughout; and, therefore, if there
is an external world, it is always unknown and unknowable.
What we know of it is as it is moulded, formed, fashioned
by our own mind. (1)
was mentioned earlier in passing. Let us look at it again
in order to illustrate adhyasa, or superimposition.
Suppose a lazy worker notices his boss talking to a colleague.
He can hear only snatches of indistinct conversation but when
the word ‘fired’ falls on his ears his apprehensions and fears
hit him like a storm, and his hatred he then projects on the
boss. Actually his boss had said ‘tired’ referring to something
our feelings - wishes, anxieties and fears - are projected
(or superimposed) on external objects, we misinterpret things
and situations. This is what is called adhyasa and
is one of the main pillars in understanding the Advaita Vedanta
of Sri Shankaracharya. To let Swamiji explain adhyasa:
‘There was a stump of a tree, and in the dark, a thief came
that way and said, “That is a policeman.” A young man waiting
for his beloved saw it and thought that it was his sweetheart.
A child who had been told ghost stories took it for a ghost
and began to shriek. But all the time it was the stump of
a tree’ (2.87). One can never see two things in one; either
it is a stump (sthanu) or a man (purusha).
from Illusion or Vice Versa?
a different standpoint, science still leaves us as confused
as ever. Laws that operate in the world of objective matter
are found to become completely unsubstantiated on a different
scale and plane. The strict physical laws that govern the
perceptible world of matter break down in the quantum world
of subatomic matter. Indeterminacy, uncertainty, in this realm
is giving rise to determinate laws and objects on the gross
surface. One may well question whether chaos is giving rise
to concrete objects or whether order is breaking down into
chaos? One can also ask: Is illusion giving rise to the supposed
reality or is something called reality giving rise to the
illusion of objects? It is for sure that one thing is appearing
as another. In the classical illustration of Vedanta, the
rope is appearing as a snake.
Orders of Existence and Experience
acknowledges three orders of existence: the absolute, paramarthika
satta; the relative, vyavaharika satta; and the
illusory, pratibhasika satta. These orders of existence
are not graded. The absolute (Brahman) appears as the relative
world, objects in the relative world cause illusions, and
the illusory may appear as the real.
do not know anything about this universe, yet at the same
time we cannot say that we do not know. … This standing
between knowledge and ignorance, this mystic twilight, the
mingling of truth and falsehood - and where they meet -
no one knows. We are walking in the midst of a dream, half
sleeping, half waking, passing all our lives in a haze;
this is the fate of everyone of us. This is the fate of
all sense- knowledge. This is the fate of all philosophy,
of all boasted science, of all boasted human knowledge.
This is the universe (2.111-2).
explanation could also mean that Vedanta is trying to evade
questions. But unlike the Buddhists who say ‘Realize all this
as illusion’, Hinduism (Vedanta) says that within the illusion
is the Real (8.273). In each act of cognition the reality
called Brahman is vaguely perceived. It is due to this that
there exists in everyone an unshakable belief in everything,
including illusions, as permanent and real. It has to, because
Brahman is Consciousness Absolute and illusion, maya, is indefinable.
Cause of Illusion
young man once asked Sri Ramakrishna: ‘If the world is of
the nature of illusion - magic - then why doesn’t one get
rid of it?’ The Master replied: ‘It is due to the samskaras,
inborn tendencies. Repeated births in this world of maya make
one believe that maya is real.’ (2)
sum up this article with Swamiji’s words of hope:
are all travelling in this mirage of the world … not knowing
that it is a mirage. One day it will break up, but it will
come back again; the body has to remain under the power
of past Karma, and so the mirage will come back. This world
will come back upon us so long as we are bound by Karma
… all will come back to us, but not with the same power.
Under the influence of the new knowledge the strength of
Karma will be broken, its poison will be lost. It becomes
transformed, for along with it there comes the idea that
we know it now, that the sharp distinction between the reality
and the mirage has been known. (3)
we gaze at the beautiful sunset once more, nothing has changed
optically but we have changed. We had so long lived in a self-constructed
prison of our experiences. Now that we have had intimations
of the Reality behind the illusion, our being vibrates with
the great mantra of the Isha Upanishad addressed to
the Reality behind the Sun (and Nature): ‘O thou who art the
nourisher, the solitary traveller, the controller, the acquirer,
the son of Prajapati, do remove thy rays, do gather up thy
dazzle. I shall behold by thy grace that form of thine which
is most benign. I am that very Person that is yonder (in the
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8,1989; 9,1997), 3.403.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 585.
Eight Upanishads, trans. Swami Gambhirananda, 2 vols.
(Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), 1.27.