Life’s Illusions

Life’s Illusions: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Monday, October 24 is Diwali, a festival that Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists observe to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over illusion.

There is a wonderful parable often cited in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist texts, about a bunch of blind men trying to learn about an elephant. Each one touched a different part disagreeing with others about his findings – the one who touched the leg thought it was a tree; he who touched the tail thought it was a rope; the tusk was deemed to be a spear… and so on. Each one thought he knew the truth, but he only knew the illusory partial truth. 

The fact is that we are endowed with limited cognitive ability compared to the infinite and complex reality we face. What compounds this is that as we grow up in our respective societies, we also develop cognitive biases like confirmation bias, negativity bias, anchoring bias, and so on. 

For each of us, what we believe to be the absolute truth is merely built on a database of conditioning and information including that of our genes. As children we may have believed in Santa Claus or in ghosts, but as we grow older, different realities take over. Thus, reality is highly malleable. The problem lies when we persist under our individual illusions and delusions.

We can never see through illusion until we break pieces of reality into its component parts – a table cannot exist without wood which can further be broken down into atoms and particles. This is what many religious thinkers help us do.

Religions remind us of how incomplete our perceptions of reality are and, in some cases, teach us ways to make these perceptions more complete. Plato famously described the illusory nature of our ordinary way of perceiving the world through an allegory in which he likens us to prisoners in a cave who see shadows flickering against a wall, completely unaware that these shadows are merely projections of real objects rather than reality itself. For Plato, the antidote to life’s illusions was reason—using philosophical inquiry to question everything we believe to be true, so that we may better “know thyself.”

Confucius’ teachings are similar with the additional focus on using rituals to show directly how our ordinary ways of viewing and interacting with the world are not the only ways. Lao Tzu and the early Taoist sages also placed emphasis on “unlearning”—deconditioning ourselves from believing anything we have been taught as true or real.

Hindu philosophy believes that due to the powerful cosmic force of maya which literally means illusion, the soul identifies with the temporary body and starts clinging to attachments and worldly pleasures which are transient. The greatest illusion is believing you are separate from everything and everyone else. Hinduism promotes self-inquiry, comparing life to being part of play, where you play many roles, but you are not any of them. You are oneness. 

Finally, the Western monotheisms like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Baha’i see the Earthly world we now inhabit as fundamentally flawed and illusory in nature. Earthly life itself is a mere passing illusory detour taken by our grander spiritual self that exists independently of this material state. It is not until after we reach the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife that true reality will reveal itself.

Most religions believe that earthly life is not meaningless nor without consequence. What we do within the bounds of our illusory state still matters in determining the conditions of our afterlife. And therefore the cultivation of character virtues—which depends upon relinquishing certain illusions like egocentrism and selfishness—is a paramount goal of life.

Christianity

“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

—The New Testament (1 James 4:14), Christian text

Judaism

Olam has a diverse set of meanings, including, world, existence, lifetime and eternity. As is often the case in Hebrew, the etymology of the word suggests the link between its different senses; olam comes from alam, a verb meaning to hide or conceal. The underlying theological idea is that whether in time or in space, the olam is that which conceals the presence of God in the world. Olam haba is the world to come.

—The Jewish Chronicle, weekly Jewish newspaper

Islam

“Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children […] And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.”

Qur’an (57:20), Muslim text

Baha’i

“Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. It may, moreover, be likened unto the lifeless image of the beloved whom the lover hath sought and found, in the end, after long search and to his utmost regret, to be such as cannot "fatten nor appease his hunger.”

—Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet 

Hinduism

“The world appears the way we see it, but that is not the way it really is. Maya comes from the same root as magic. In saying the world is maya, non-dual Hinduism is saying that there is something tricky about it. The trick lies in the way the world’s materiality and multiplicity pass themselves off as being independently real—real apart from the stance from which we see them—whereas in fact reality is undifferentiated Brahman throughout, in the way a rope lying in the dust remains a rope while being mistaken for a snake.”

Huston Smith, scholar of religion

“Those who know this truth, whose consciousness is unified, think always, ‘I am not the doer.’ While seeing or hearing, touching or smelling; eating, moving about, or sleeping; breathing or speaking, letting go or holding on, even opening or closing the eyes, they understand that these are only the movements of the senses among sense objects.”

The Bhagavad Gita, Hindu text

Buddhism

“The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth, and all the teaching of Buddhism is condensed within it. This is the teaching for all of us. Wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also understood as the teaching of selflessness. Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. This is also called the teaching of Nirvana.”

—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher

Confucianism

“To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge.”

—The Analects (2:17), Confucian text

Daoism

“When my teacher Lao-tzu left for the western lands, he told me that the life and breath of heaven and earth and the shape of all things are really illusions.”

—Lieh-tzu, Daoist text

Modern Literature

“Although you can see it, green is not a real color, it arises from a mixture of blue and yellow; if you thoroughly combine blue and yellow, you will get green. Every painter knows that; but few people realize that the world we live in stands likewise under the sign of green and thus does not reveal its true nature, namely blue and yellow.”

—The Green Face, novel by Gustav Meyrink

Modern Psychology

“One must painstakingly match one's preconceptions against actual, ongoing experience to begin separating truth from illusion[…]These distortions are ‘inside’ each one of us—no human being is immune to the illusions they foster.”

—Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, psychologist