Maya or illusion is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition. To the untrained eye of the savage, a painting is at first an unmeaning confusion of streaks and daubs of colour, while an educated eye sees instantly a face or a landscape. Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities. The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan-Chohans, are, in degree, of the nature of shadows cast by a magic lantern on a colourless screen; but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself. Whatever reality things possess must be looked for in them before or after they have passed like a flash through the material world; but we cannot cognise any such existence directly, so long as we have sense-instruments which bring only material existence into the field of our consciousness. Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached "reality"; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 39-40
The Universe is called, with everything in it, MAYA, because all is temporary therein, from the ephemeral life of a fire-fly to that of the Sun. Compared to the eternal immutability of the ONE, and the changelessness of that Principle, the Universe, with its evanescent ever-changing forms, must be necessarily, in the mind of a philosopher, no better than a will-o'-the-wisp. Yet, the Universe is real enough to the conscious beings in it, which are as unreal as it is itself. — Ibid., I, 274
IN TAKING up again our study of The Secret Doctrine at the point we reached a fortnight ago, I open the first volume at page 17, and read the third fundamental postulate — at least a portion of it:
The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul — a spark of the former — through the Cycle of Incarnation (or "Necessity") in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle, — or the over-soul, — has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha).
Paul, the Apostle of the Christians "to the Gentiles," as they call him, according to the Christian Gospels in Acts 17, verses 23-28, spoke to an assembly of the Athenians on mars Hill, commonly called the Areopagus, and he said the following (the translation being ours):
For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: "To the Unknowable God." . . . For in It we live and move and have our being, as certain also of your own poets have said, "For we are also of Its line."
The poets of whom Paul speaks were probably Cleanthes the Stoic, and Aratus. It is perhaps well to mention that the sense of "unknowable," as used in connection with this word agnostos, is that employed by Homer, by Plato, and by Aristotle. This Greek word agnostos also permits the translation "unknown," but merely because the Unknown in this connection is the Unknowable.
The Athenians had raised an altar to the Ineffable, and with the true spirit of religious devotion they left it without further qualification; and Paul, passing by and seeing it, thought he saw an excellent chance to "make hay while the sun shone," and claimed the Unknowable, to which this altar had been raised, as the Jewish God, Jehovah.
A fortnight ago we stated how it was that man could form some conception of that ineffable Principle of which H. P. Blavatsky speaks as being the first of the three fundamental postulates necessary in order to understand the true teachings of the esoteric wisdom; and we saw that man has in himself a faculty transcending the ordinary human intellectual power — something in him by which he can raise himself upwards or, perhaps better, inwards, towards the inmost center of his own being, which in very truth is that Ineffable: from It we came, back to It we are journeying through the aeons of time.
All the ancient philosophers taught the truth concerning this same fundamental principle, each in his own way, each with different terms, each in the language of the country where it was promulgated, but always there was taught the central truth: that in the inmost being of man there lives a divinity, and this divinity is the offspring of the Highest, and that man can become a god in the flesh, or he can sink lower even than the common average of humanity so that he becomes at first obsessed or beset, and finally possessed by the daemons of his own lower nature and by those of the lower sphere; and by these particular daemons we mean the elemental forces of life, of chaotic life, or of the material sphere of being.
Again, how is it that man cannot see these truths intimately and immediately? We all know the answer is, on account of the illusion under which his mind labors, the illusion which is a part of himself, not cast upon him from the outside: he sees, for instance, and his mind reacts to the vision, and the reaction is conducted along the lines of the illusion which, taking the ancient Sanskrit word, is called maya.
This is a technical term in the ancient Brahmanical philosophy. Let us examine its root. What does the word maya come from? It comes from a Sanskrit root ma, meaning "to measure," and by a figure of speech it comes to mean to effect, or to form, and hence to limit. There is an English word mete, meaning "to measure out," from the same Indo-European root. It is found in the Anglo-Saxon as the root met, in the Greek as med, and in the Latin also in the same form.
Now maya, as a technical term, has come to mean — ages ago in the Brahmanical philosophy it was understood very differently from what it is now usually understood to be — the fabrication by man's mind of ideas derived from interior and exterior impressions, and hence the illusory aspect of man's thoughts as he considers and tries to interpret and understand life and his surroundings — and thence was derived the sense which it technically bears, illusion. It does not mean that the exterior world is nonexistent; if it were, it obviously could not be illusory; it exists, but is not. It is "measured out" or it stands out to the human spirit as a mirage. In other words, we do not see clearly and plainly and in their reality the vision and the visions which our mind and senses present to the inner life and eye.
The familiar illustrations of maya in the Vedanta, which is the highest form that the Brahmanical teachings have taken and which is so near to our own teaching in many respects, were such as follows: a man at eventide sees a coiled rope on the ground and springs aside, thinking it a serpent. The rope is there, but no serpent.
Another illustration is what is called the "horns of the hare." When a hare is seen at eventide its long ears seem to project from its head in such fashion that it appears even to the seeing eye as being a creature with horns. The hare has no horns, but there is then in the mind an illusory belief that an animal with horns exists there.
That is what maya means: not that a thing seen does not exist, but that we are blinded and our mind perverted by our own thoughts and our own imperfections, and do not as yet arrive at the real interpretation and meaning of the world, of the universe around us. By ascending inwardly, by rising up, by inner aspiration, by an elevation of soul, we can reach upwards or rather inwards toward that plane where truth abides in fullness.
Bernard of Clairvaux, the French mystic of the Middle Ages, said that one way of doing this, and he spoke truly, was by "emptying the mind," pouring out the trashy stuff it contains, the illusory beliefs, the false views, the hatreds, suspicions, carelessness, etc., and that by emptying out all this trash, the temple within is cleansed, and the light from the god within streams forth into the soul — a wonderful figure of thought.
It may be asked: what relationship has our philosophy to the many so-called idealistic systems of Europe, particularly in Germany, and represented by Bishop Berkeley in Britain? The answer is that there are points of contact, naturally, because the men who evolved these systems of philosophy were earnest men, and no man can earnestly think and strive upwards without arriving at some visions of truth, some faint perceptions of the inner life — but none of these systems of idealism is exactly the idealism of theosophy. Theosophy is not an absolute idealism; it does not teach that the external universe is absolutely nonexistent and that all external phenomena merely exist in the mind.
Theosophy is not exactly either the idealism of Kant nor the wonderful pessimistic idealism of Schopenhauer — wonderful as this great thinker was, and wonderful precisely because he derived his knowledge (and confessed it openly) from the Orient. The idealism of theosophy is nearest to the philosophy of the German philosopher von Schelling, who taught (principally) that truth was to be perceived by receding inwards and taking it from the spirit, and that the outward world is "dead mind" or perhaps rather inert mind — not the mind of the thinker obviously, but the mind of the Deity. Now this is called objective idealism because it recognizes the external object as having existence: it is not nonexistent, as absolute idealism would put it.
H. P. Blavatsky says on page 631 of the first volume of The Secret Doctrine:
Esoteric philosophy, teaching an objective Idealism — though it regards the objective Universe and all in it as Maya, temporary illusion — draws a practical distinction between collective illusion, Mahamaya, from the purely metaphysical stand-point, and the objective relations in it between various conscious Egos so long as this illusion lasts.
The teaching is that maya is thus called from the action of Mulaprakriti, or "root-nature," the coordinate principle of that other line of coactive consciousness which we call Parabrahman. We remember that from the moment when manifestation begins, it acts dualistically, that is to say, that everything in nature from that point onwards is crossed by pairs of opposites, such as long and short, high and low, night and day, good and evil, consciousness and nonconsciousness, etc., and that all these things are essentially magic or illusory — real while they last, but the lasting is not eternal. It is through and by these pairs of opposites that the self-conscious soul learns truth.
What is the basis of morals? This is the most important question that can be asked of any system of thought. Is morality based on the dicta of man? Is morality based on the conviction in most men's hearts that for human safety it is necessary to have certain abstract rules which it is merely convenient to follow? Are we mere opportunists? or is morality, ethics, based on truth, which it is not merely expedient for man to follow, but needful? Surely upon the latter.
And in the third fundamental postulate which we read at the opening of our study this evening, we find the very elements, the very fundamentals, of a system of morality greater than which, profounder than which, more persuasive than which, perhaps, it would be impossible to imagine anything.
On what, then, is morality based? And by morality I mean not merely the opinion which some pseudophilosophers have, that morality is more or less that which is good for the community, based on the mere meaning of the Latin word mores, good customs as opposed to bad. No; morality is that instinctive hunger of the human heart to do righteousness, to do good to every man because it is good and satisfying and ennobling to do so.
When man realizes that he is one with all that is, inwards and outwards, high and low; that he is one with them, not merely as members of a community are one, not merely as individuals of an army are one, but like the molecules of our own flesh, like the atoms of the molecule, like the electrons of the atom, composing one unity — not a mere union but a spiritual unity — then he sees truth.
Every one of us belongs to, and is an inhering part of, that sublime and ineffable Mystery — the ALL — which contains and is individual and spiritual unity.
We have all of us one inward universal self, and each one has also his individual ego. The ego springs from the self and the self is the Ineffable, the Inmost of the Inmost, one in all of us — giving each one of us that sense of selfhood; although by extension of meaning we also speak, and properly speak, of the lower self, because this is a tiny ray from the Highest. Even the evil man has in himself not merely the spark of the divine, but the very ray of divinity itself: he is both the selfish ego and the universal self.
Why then are we taught that when we attain selflessness, we attain the divine? Precisely because selflessness is the attribute of the Paramatman, the universal self, where all personality vanishes. Paramatman is a Sanskrit compound meaning "highest" or "supreme self."
If we examine our own spirits, if we reach inwards, if we stretch ourselves inwards, as it were, towards the Inmost, every one of us may know that as he goes farther, farther, farther in, the self becomes selfless, the light becomes pure glory.
What a thought, that in the heart of each one of us there dwells, there lives, the ever-unfolding, the constant, the eternal, the changeless, knowing no death, knowing no sorrow, the very divinity of all! How it dignifies human life! What courage does it give to us! How does it clear away all of the old moldy superstitions! What unspeakable visions of reality, of the truth, do we obtain when we go inwards, after having emptied the mind, as Bernard says, of all the mental trash that encumbers it!
When man has reached the state where he realizes this and has so emptied his mind that it is filled only with the self itself, with the selfless selfhood of the Eternal — what did the ancients call this state? What did they call such a man himself? They called the state, bodhi; and they called the human, buddha; and the organ in and by which it was manifested, buddhi. All these words came from a Sanskrit root meaning "to awaken." When man has awakened from the living death in which we live, when he has cast off the toils of mind and flesh and, to use the old Christian term, has put on the "garments of eternity," then he has awakened, he is a buddha. And the ancient Brahmanical teachings, found today even in the Vedanta, state that he has become one with — not "absorbed," as is constantly translated — but has become one with the self of selves, with the Paramatman, the supreme self.
Turning again to the Chhandogya Upanishad, one of the most important of the 108 or more Upanishads — the very word upanishad signifies esoteric treatise — we read from the eighth lecture, seventh, eighth, and ninth sections:
Prajapati said —
We interrupt by saying that prajapati is a Sanskrit word meaning "governor" or "lord" or "master of progeny." The word is applied to many of the Vedic gods, but in particular to Brahma — that is to say, the third step from Parabrahman — the evolver-creator, the first and most recondite figure of the triad consisting of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. Brahma is the emanator or evolver, Vishnu the sustainer or preserver, and Siva, which may be translated euphemistically perhaps as "beneficent," the regenerator. This name is very obscure. However:
Prajapati said: "The Self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, which desires nothing but what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine, that it is which we must search out, that it is which we must try to understand. He who has searched out that Self and understands it, obtains all worlds and all desires."
We interrupt to ask why? Because this self of selves, this Inmost, is all worlds: it is all, it is everything. Now to quote:
The Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) both heard these words, and said: "Well, let us search for that Self by which, if one has searched it out, all worlds and all desires are obtained."
Thus saying Indra went from the Devas, Virochana from the Asuras, and both, without having communicated with each other, approached Prajapati, holding fuel in their hands, as is the custom for pupils approaching their master.
They dwelt there as pupils for thirty-two years. Then Prajapati asked them: "For what purpose have you dwelt here?"
They replied: "A saying of yours is being repeated, viz. 'the Self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, which desires nothing but what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine, that it is which we must search out, that it is which we must try to understand. He who has searched out that Self and understands it, obtains all worlds and all desires.' Now we both have dwelt here because we wish for that Self."
Prajapati said to them: "The person that is seen in the eye, that is the Self. This is what I have said. This is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman."
Interrupting: the self that is seen in the eye is a figure of speech not infrequently found in the ancient Sanskrit writings; it signifies that sense of an indwelling presence that one sees when he looks into the eyes of another.
They asked: "Sir, he who is perceived in the water, and he who is perceived in a mirror, who is he?"
He replied: "He himself indeed is seen in all these."
[Eighth Section] "Look at your Self in a pan of water, and whatever you do not understand of your Self, come and tell me."
They looked in the water-pan. Then Prajapati said to them: "What do you see?"
They said: "We both see the self thus altogether, a picture even to the very hairs and nails."
Prajapati said to them: "After you have adorned yourselves, . . . look again into the water-pan."
They, after having adorned themselves, having put on their best clothes and cleaned themselves, looked into the water-pan.
Prajapati said: "What do you see?"
They said: "Just as we are, well adorned, with our best clothes and clean, thus we are both there, Sir, well adorned, with our best clothes and clean."
Prajapati said: "That is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman."
Then both went away satisfied in their hearts.
And Prajapati, looking after them, said: "They both go away without having perceived and without having known the Self, and whoever of these two, whether Devas or Asuras, will follow this doctrine will perish."
Interrupting: they saw maya and not the self.
Now Virochana, satisfied in his heart, went to the Asuras and preached that doctrine to them, that the self (the body) alone is to be worshipped, that the self (the body) alone is to be served, and that he who worships the self and serves the self, gains both worlds, this and the next.
Therefore they call even now a man who does not give alms here, who has no faith, and offers no sacrifices, an Asura, for this is the doctrine of Asuras. They deck out the body of the dead with perfumes, flowers, and fine raiment by way of ornament, and think they will thus conquer that world.
[Ninth Section] But Indra, before he had returned to the Devas, saw this difficulty.
Interrupting: the difficulty now comes which Indra saw.
As this self (the shadow in the water) is well adorned, when the body is well adorned, well dressed, when the body is well dressed, well cleaned, if the body is well cleaned, that self will also be blind, if the body is blind, lame, if the body is lame, crippled, if the body is crippled, and will perish in fact as soon as the body perishes. Therefore I see no good in this (doctrine).
Taking fuel in his hand he came again as a pupil to Prajapati. Prajapati said to him: "Maghavat (Indra), as you went away with Virochana, satisfied in your heart, for what purpose did you come back?"
He said: "Sir, as this self (the shadow) is well adorned, when the body is well adorned, well dressed, when the body is well dressed, well cleaned, if the body is well cleaned, that self will also be blind, if the body is blind, lame, if the body is lame, crippled, if the body is crippled, and will perish in fact as soon as the body perishes. Therefore I see no good in this (doctrine)."
"So it is indeed, Maghavat," replied Prajapati; "but I shall explain him (the true Self) further to you. Live with me another thirty-two years."
Indra was able to see beyond the maya of the personal self, and therefore was searching for the real, for the true, the self itself.
The translation is Max Muller's. It may be well to add in conclusion that all translations which have been made and may hereafter be made are made by ourself, from any one of the ancient languages, and if any quotation is taken from another translator, his name will be given.