The Theosophical Forum – June 1950

THE VEIL OF MAYA — E. A. Holmes

There are times when life seems dull, and too much composed of routine office-work, or washing up of dishes. Of course, we may have read of Brother Lawrence, who felt himself in the presence of God even when washing up dishes, and a little thought will show that provided we "keep our heads above water," we must be moving towards better things, even if only on the slow current of evolution. Yet most of us enjoy a change, if it only takes the form of an occasional visit to the theatre. We may be inclined to blame ourselves for this state of things, for displaying some form of escapism, for not facing squarely up to life, but one wonders if this is the whole story?

Another diversion in which many people indulge are holidays, and it would seem that one idea in taking a vacation is to find interests which are entirely foreign to the molds of our minds, something new, something free from the rust and scale which clings around too familiar things. We find folk who live by the sea taking holidays in the country, and country-folk flocking to the seaside, or even to the cities, incredible though this may seem to sophisticated city folk! Yet even we perhaps can remember a time when we found glamour and romance in city lights and sounds and smells, when our occasional visits to the city remain in our child-memories as phantasies or dreams, hardly related at all to daily life.

Some of you may have been abroad, in foreign parts, and will recall the sense of unreality surrounding the strange sights and customs you came across. For one person, at least, no matter how many times he visited Egypt during the war, and no matter how many weeks or months he stayed on each visit, the sight of white robes and red fez never failed to raise a sense of phantasmagoria, and make-believe.

It would seem that in such cases when we come across something entirely unfamiliar to us, we have no physical sense, no physical awareness with which we can contact it, and we have to take things in with some non-physical faculty, just as we do during sleep, the result being that it all seems like a dream.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, in his book The World as Will and Idea, wrote:

The Vedas and Puranas have no better simile than a dream for the whole knowledge of the actual world, which they call the web of maya.

The Vedas and Puranas are ancient Indian works which treat of things from an inner point of view. From this inner point of view the physical world is a world of make-believe, and it may be that our craving for "fields and pastures new" is only part escapism, and part a revolt of our souls from the sham and unreality of ordinary life.

Schopenhauer went on to show that, physically, we know not a sun or an earth, but only an eye which sees the sun, and a hand which feels the earth. Our conceptions of sun and earth are at best only second-hand, and according to Theosophy, are still further removed than this. Theosophy speaks of the seven principles of man, each of which is a stratum of cosmic substance. Among these strata are located man's centers of consciousness, from the lowest to the highest. The lowest levels of our consciousness are the furthest removed from reality. The highest levels partake of that universal essence, which to us, from our human standpoint, is reality itself. And all these principles and vehicles and organs which divide us from reality, make up the web of maya, or the veil of illusion.

The Sanscrit word maya. roughly translated means "illusion," and the doctrine of Maya refers to the illusionary nature of the world in which we live. What form of illusion is it which Theosophy postulates as surrounding our every-day lives? Is it the illusion such as a mirage in the desert, when something is seen which is not in that vicinity at all? Is it something we only imagine, but which doesn't take place at all? Did we only imagine, for instance, that we came to the Lodge room this evening; do we only imagine that we eat, sleep, and carry on our particular vocations? These are examples of possible illusions, but they are not examples of maya.

An example of maya is given thus: You are walking along in the dusk and suddenly you see what appears to be a snake in your path. After jumping aside, you find, much to your relief, that it is only a piece of rope. The rope was there; it was real enough as a piece of rope, but your vision of it as a snake was illusory, and hence maya.

According to Theosophy, life is not a fiction, and we have not just imagined that we came here tonight; but do we know who or what we are? Can we see for what purpose we live, and have we any inkling of the patterns of destiny which have led us into our families, among our friends, and into our social and economic circles? These things we want to know, and these things are not apparent.

Two courses are open to us. We can say that there is no pattern of destiny, that there is no purpose in life, or we can say there is a purpose and it is up to us to find it. Mankind in general follows the former course. Orthodox opinion has it that chance, not justice, not natural law, rules our lives, and that life has little or no purpose beyond expressing our own ego, and the will to live. From this conception rises the picture which Schopenhauer paints in the fourth section of his book. "Homo homini lupus" he calls the picture, a gruesome panorama of the prisons, torture-chambers, slave kennels, battlefields, and places of execution, sufficient to make everyone pause before accepting these things as the real human lot. In his delusion of separateness, man seeks his own well-being even at the expense of his neighbor. The pleasures he gets thereby are illusory and vain, says this German philosopher. The wish for them is a sort of pain, attainment begets satiety, possession takes away the charm, and there remains only — ennui, boredom. "The wicked man, by the vehemence of his volition suffers constant consuming inward pain."

This is indeed a pessimistic outlook for the transgressor, and we should imagine that in the face of such experience he would soon become a reformed character. Maybe in the full course of evolution, many aeons from now, this effect will come about, but it doesn't seem to happen overnight on any large scale, judging from our history books!

Schopenhauer's remedy is self-denial and resignation, the subduing of wishes and the conquering-of the will.

These moments in which, delivered from the ardent strain of will, we seem to rise out of the heavy atmosphere of earth, are the happiest which we experience.

So that in seeking for reality behind appearances, Schopenhauer would deny those appearances altogether, and seek direct for Nirvana, utter bliss and oblivion to this world.

The question of reality is approached from many angles in articles on Theosophy. In one case, truth was observed to lie beyond the strife and turmoil of everyday life, and only to be approached by taking up the pilgrim's staff and leaving aside all that the world holds dear. Schopenhauer would seem to subscribe to this view. In another case it was asserted that spiritual reality lies at our elbow, and that only wilful blindness veils heaven on earth. Life is joy, and a spiritual Jerusalem can be built here on earth, now! Do these two convictions clash, and if not, how do we reconcile them?

Perhaps we shall find that these two apparently conflicting views are two aspects of the same thing. One aspect postulates the veritable existence of Truth and Reality behind things which are fleeting. Here is a sheet-anchor for us among the vicissitudes of life — something we can hang on to in times of stress. We could call it a philosophy of Life. The other aspect sets forth our relationship to this Reality, and gives us a philosophy of Living.

In just the same conjunction and contrast lie the Mosaic Law on the one hand, and the Sermon on the Mount on the other. "Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This is indeed the universal cosmic law from which none may escape, the law of karman, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap," "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," an ineffable law, a philosophy of Life in toto, but not a rule for human conduct. "But I say unto you," continued Jesus, "that ye resist not evil." Man has his free will, his power of choice, his power to control some of the causes, from which come new effects breaking the vicious circle of "jungle law," and setting forth a philosophy of Living.

Self-denial and resignation, the subduing of wishes and the conquering of the will, these remedies which Schopenhauer prescribes, can also nurture giant weeds of self, if the motive behind them is attainment of bliss for oneself. This is the path of the Pratyeka Buddhas, those highly spiritual Beings, who, on attaining perfection, turn their backs upon mankind, and enter into Nirvanic bliss.

The great White Lodge, which ceases not its care for mankind, and amongst whose Work the Theosophical movement is perhaps a minor activity, is of the Order of the Buddhas of Compassion, those highly spiritual Beings who have renounced their perfection in order to remain within the veils of maya to instruct and enlighten orphan humanity. From time to time They send forth Their messengers, and the world knows a Jesus, a Buddha, a Sankaracharya, or a Lao-tze.

 Self-denial and resignation, the subduing of wishes and the conquering of the will, these same processes can be used as sources of power enabling us to help our fellow men. We could call them, in other words, humility, gentleness, generosity. Franz Hartmann, writing of Jacob Boehme says (THEOS. FORUM, Dec. 1949):

He earnestly went through the practical exercises necessary in the study of practical occultism, that is to say, he practised patience, piety, simplicity of thought and purpose, modesty, resignation of his self-will to divine law.

One of the Great Ones has said: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; love your enemies; do good to them that hate you — but we of the world find that the meek are ignored, that the humble attain to no eminence, that the poor in spirit will not emulate Caesar, Napoleon, nor Alexander the Great so-called. Yet, says Theosophy, only by humility can one enter into communion with Nature, and begin to love her humble creatures. Only in gentleness does the individuality shine through the mask of personality. Only by mastering the passions and desires can the soul of man begin to see through the veils of maya, through this sediment in the vials of life.

H. P. Blavatsky was careful to point out in The Key to Theosophy that indiscriminate self-sacrifice is wrong. Our own selves, our own personalities, have their rights, their part in the scheme of things, and only when this right clashes with the general weal of men, is it good and proper to sacrifice it. "The first step on the path is to live to benefit mankind."

We have seen, that in appraising Schopenhauer's philosophy of life, we could yet imagine flaws in his philosophy of living. Beyond the evil and strife of the world do indeed blossom flowers of perfection, but in seeking for these, there is no need to destroy the physical flower, petal by petal, leaf by leaf. Such a practice, by strange inversion, would emulate the materialist seeking to find the soul with scalpel and microscope. The misery which Schopenhauer adumbrates, and which undoubtedly exists in this benighted world of ours, is a shadow cast by its reality, joy, just as lust is the shadow of love. Whence came this shadow? It is cast by man, and only man himself can banish it.

Man has had his golden age, and will rise to see it again, for it is still there. This age of darkness, this kali-yuga, is but a veil hiding the eternal sun from our eyes. It is we ourselves who deny the sun; we ourselves who blind ourselves to its rays. "Never the spirit was not, the spirit shall cease to be never." There is no need to abjure the world in order to find reality. Reality is there in the faces of our fellow men, frown-hidden and glower-hidden though it may be. The meanest wretch, could we look at him aright, is a god, radiant and shining. Well might the myths and legends of the whole world scream at us this fact! The monster turns into a fairy princess when the true hero appears. She had been a fairy princess all the time, but we in our blindness took her for a monster.

Whence came this blindness? It is a disease which has come upon man from one cause only — man's inhumanity.

Two forces are at work in curing man's spiritual blindness. One is the slow process of evolution, of lessons learned by karmic retribution throughout many incarnations on earth. The slowest evolving things on earth are the rocks, but even these are beginning to prod man forward. According to Theosophy the earth has passed its most material point, and is slowly beginning to etherealize. The grosser elements like uranium are beginning to break up, and to give out what we have come to know as atomic energy. There will come a time, says Theosophy, when even the less gross matter which makes up the flesh of the lower animals will no longer exist, and these animals will become extinct. Of course, we are talking in geologic time now. Later, much later, will come a time when there will be no suitable material on earth to make up our human flesh, as we know it. Those among men who at that far-distant date have not evolved their natures concurrently with the slow sweep of life, who have not become more spiritual, will also become "extinct." They will go into what Theosophy calls "pralaya," the interval between two planetary ages of life. They will have to start all over again in the next great cycle of life.

The second force at work among men is one in which we as theosophists can take part. It is a kindling of the Light in the hearts of men. We may only play an infinitesimal part in the process, but we can know that we are backed by the greatest minds and the greatest hearts that humanity has produced, and the effort is sustained by the gods — the most noble pursuit to which man can dedicate himself.


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